REF 2021 Consultation: key proposals

Consultation on the Research Excellence Framework, following Lord Stern’s recommendations on REF has been published.  The sector has until 17th March 2017 to respond to 44 questions in the consultation, and the new rules are to be finalised in the summer 2017

HEFCE’s consultation seeks responses about the implementation of Stern’s proposals in the next exercise with the intention of reducing the burden associated with the REF process while maintaining high standards in research excellence.

Key proposals

  • All ‘research active’ staff (defined by HESA codes of “research only” and “research and teaching”) should be submitted to the REF
  • Outputs should be decoupled from staff
  • Research outputs should no longer be portable across institutions
  • Institutional level impact case study should be introduced
All ‘research active’ staff should be submitted to REF 2021

Whilst 100% of staff return would provide a fuller picture of the research activity, remove the burden of staff selectivity and take away the stigma attached to the staff not submitted to REF, it may be technically problematic to use HESA codes to capture all staff with responsibility to undertake research. HESA definition for ‘research active’ includes research assistants and therefore HEFCE proposes that a measure of independence is also included in the definition of research-active staff. This approach would potentially deliver a more accurate picture, but would also mean going back towards staff selection and identifying individual staff circumstances, which was highly time consuming and burdensome in REF2014. Also, some comments suggest that contracts of employment may start changing (e.g. ‘teaching only’ contracts) to determine staff eligibility for REF submission.

Outputs should be decoupled from staff

Stern’s Review recommended outputs should be submitted at UOA level with a set average number per FTE but with flexibility for some faculty members to submit more and others less than the average. HEFCE consultation seeks the sector’s views on a sliding scale of 0-6 outputs per individual, and an average of two outputs per FTE. Benefits of this approach include breaking the link between individuals and outputs, ensuring that academics with a limited publication record are not required to have four outputs, and removing the requirement of individual staff circumstances. However, a range of 0-6 outputs per individual does not necessarily guarantee full picture of the research activity across HEI. As David Sweeney has argued ‘the body of work of the submitted unit could potentially represent the work of only a third of all staff within a UOA’. Read full article here. HEFCE consultation also puts forward the possibility of one output per staff member. This approach would reduce high selectivity of staff but would also increase the burden and cost associated with the submission.

Research outputs should no longer be portable across institutions

In previous assessment exercises, research outputs were linked to submitted staff, and could be returned for assessment by the institution employing the staff member regardless of where they were employed when the output was produced. The Stern review identified concerns around ‘staff poaching’- hiring staff on fractional contracts and the movement of staff to new institutions shortly before the REF census date.

The consultation proposes that outputs should be submitted only by the institution where the output was demonstrably generated, and recommends that ‘accepted for publication’ would be a suitable marker for demonstrably generated. However, how this marker might apply to all output type (monographs, performances, exhibitions) remains one of the open questions of the consultation.

HEFCE also seeks suggestions on mitigating unintended consequences of such an approach, particularly for early career researchers.

Institutional level impact case study

The Stern review recommended that all institutions that submit to the REF should be required to submit some institutional level impact case studies in order to better demonstrate impacts that arise from multi- and interdisciplinary and collaborative work. HEFCE seeks sector’s views on what may count as an institutional impact case study.



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