Thursday, 29 November 2012

The sad truths behind the Research Excellence Framework


No-one who's inside British academia will have failed to notice that we're now just over a year away from the dreaded 'Research Excellence Framework' census date - the moment at which UK academics have all their work 'graded'. And yes, it's as silly as it sounds. 

The 'REF' is there to allocate so-called QR funding - money that is given out to institutions, rather than to specific projects, to build research capacity. The better you do, the more money you get. So what are the consequences? Er... Grey markets, game-playing, bureaucracy, absurdist demands, a lot of upset, and, hmm, that's it really.

But let's break things down slightly more theoretically.

The transfer market. What's the first thing that you would do if you were in a middling-to-good research unit and wanted to improve by the census date? Develop young talent? Support your own staff? Yes, that's right, because the Premier League is so good at doing that in the football world, isn't it. Nope. You'd buy in big guns, promise them a lot of stuff - low teaching loads, research assistance, great labs - and then let them do their best (or worst). The whole system discourages in-house development: a situation that's getting worse and worse as funders (and the REF itself) focus on 'internationally-leading' research rather than work that would be appropriate to an academic's career stage. So a transfer market has developed, in which some 'feeder' universities do all the investment (think: Norwich and Reading in the Premiership), and then have the fruits of their labour cherry-picked by everyone else (think: Arsenal and Chelsea). Way to go, policymakers.

Workplace bullying. It's probably the case that not-so-much cash is going to be allocated by this particular round of the 'game'. The Government's strapped for cash, and lopping some REF money off will be a quiet and easy way to find some. But research managers don't necessarily respond to those incentives. They're playing a prestige game - in which the outside world will say 'ah, you got this grade - great' or 'that was a rubbish grade you got'. The university (and the individual) will be made to look bad, both to their peers (academics hate looking foolish vis-a-vis their frenemies) and to prospective undegraduates. Research managers' careers will be built or crushed. In increasing desperation, some turn to the worst forms of workplace bullying - including harrassment and suspension - to secure compliance. There's even a whole blog dedicated to the phenomenon. Really. It happens spottily and episodically - it's by no means the whole story. But it's there, and everybody knows it.

Over-management. Everyone needs managers. Someone has to do the spreadsheets. Someone has to make decisions - unalterable facts that make (for instance) populist objections to 'NHS managers' a bit hard to take. Academics aren't always very good at this sort of thing, and someone has to step in. But the extent to which managerial numbers have ballooned is extraordinary - by far outstripping any increase in the numbers of actual lecturers. Part of this is assembling the increasingly-meaningless 'statements', 'profiles', 'records' and 'databanks' that centralised research assessment requires. It's now got out of hand. It's time to call a halt and re-consider the entire field before the whole system collapses under the top-heavy weight of its own contradictions.

In short? The old Research Assessment Exercise was increasingly laughed at behind academics' hands. Now the laugher is in the open. This REF-as-emperor has no clothes, and after this time around should be consigned to history. Answers on a postcard as to what should replace it (we'll be coming back to in subsequent posts), but this parrot is a dead one.

It's yet another example of those systems I've labelled 'perestroika Britain' - neither state nor market, but an over-audited, over-jargonised, over-managed simulacrum of both, with the weaknesses of both and the strengths of neither.

Time to lay it to rest.

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