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Survey finds widespread dissatisfaction amongst university staff with research assessment

3 October 2013

The majority of university staff are unhappy with the method used to assess the research done in UK higher education institutions, and would like to see it reformed, according to a survey published by UCU today.

Nearly two-thirds of the survey's 7,000 respondents said they thought the Research Excellence Framework (REF) has a detrimental impact on the sector, and believed it creates unreasonable expectations of research outputs. More than half said they would like to see the REF replaced by an alternative method.

Two-fifths (42%) of respondents did not view the selection process for the REF at their institution as transparent and one in five (22%) feared they would be moved to a teaching only role if they did not meet their institution's REF expectations.

'Our survey suggests the current Research Excellence Framework is not fit for purpose primarily because it is distorting academic research'
Michael MacNeil, UCU head of HE

The survey shows that academics believe inclusion in the REF is a prerequisite for career success. However, many respondents felt there was an inherent lack of fairness in selection procedures, with some suggesting universities are not correctly following official guidelines.

A significant proportion of staff reported they had been warned of specific detrimental consequences if they do not meet institutional REF expectations. Women were most likely to have been warned about this and were also more likely to report excessive workload pressures as a result of working towards the REF.

Key findings from the survey include:

  • 62% of respondents viewed the REF as creating unreasonable expectations of the research output of academic researchers
  • 60% of respondents viewed the REF as having a had a detrimental impact on the sector
  • 55% of respondents felt the REF should be replaced by an alternative method for evaluating the quality of research emanating from higher education institutions
  • 42% of respondents did not view their institution's REF selection procedures as transparent
  • 22% of all respondents agreed/strongly agreed it was likely that they would be transferred to a teaching-only/teaching-focused contract if they did not perform to institutional REF expectations
  • 67% of all respondents (and 73% of women responding) felt unable to undertake the necessary work on REF outputs without working excessive working hours

UCU head of higher education, Michael MacNeil, said: 'Our survey suggests the current Research Excellence Framework is not fit for purpose primarily because it is distorting academic research. Academics are being forced to play a game whereby their choices are guided by career considerations through the need to maximise REF outputs, rather than the contribution they can make to human knowledge. This can only damage our universities in the long term and weaken their standing in the increasingly competitive global higher education landscape.

'The REF puts unreasonable expectations on staff, as shown by the finding that so many staff, particularly women, do their research work in their own time or beyond reasonable working hours.  The survey confirms what we have been hearing previously regarding a number of institutions threatening staff that they will be switched to teaching-focused contracts or forced out of their institutions altogether if they don't live up to their institution's REF expectations. This is despite a flawed nature of the assessment which clearly needs root and branch reform.'

The survey into attitudes towards the REF was carried out by UCU in May and June. 7,000 staff, ranging from researchers to professors, at 153 higher education institutions responded.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) - UCU Survey Report, Oct 13 [1mb]

Last updated: 10 December 2015