Please visit our REF Watch website for further REF critique and analysis
Research Excellence Framework
Information for branches and members on the new Research Excellence Framework.
The Research Excellence Framework (REF) - UCU Survey Report
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 the result of a UCU survey which took place during the summer of 2013. See:
Good practice in the codes of practice
December 2012: The REF Equality and Diversity Panel (EDAP) produces a report on good practice in the codes of practice on REF selection submitted by HEIs to the funding councils' REF team. It reports that nearly half of the codes sent in for review (from 159 HEIs in total) fell short of the requirements of the official guidance. Branches/LAs are advised to follow up with their own HEIs to request sight of the EDAP opinion and consultation on the implementation of requested changes. See UCUHE176 for further details: UCUHE176 (.rtf) | UCUHE176 (.pdf)
Updated REF code of practice guidance
July 2012: UCU produces updated guidance on the REF codes of practice and identifies best practice and key principles that branches/LAs should seek to include in codes of practice being developed by their HEIs prior to the 31 July deadline: UCUHE157 (.rtf) | UCUHE157 (.pdf)
UCU updates REF guidance
March 2012: Following a branch consultation meeting UCU has updated its guidance for branches on the Research Excellence Framework. Specifically, branches/LAs should now seek to influence the development of institutional codes of practice on REF submission, and seek to ensure that official guidance for REF submissions is followed. They should also seek no-detriment agreements to protect staff excluded from REF submissions.
New REF guidelines
October 2011: The overwhelming majority of contributions to UCU's REF consultation response focused on the treatment of maternity and adoption leave. The final panel criteria is due to be published in January 2012: UCU response to the HEFCE REF consultation: 'Consultation on draft panel criteria and working methods', Oct 11 [109kb] (opens in a new window)
September 2011: UCU warns that proposed new guidelines for university research as part of the 2014 REF will penalise female academics. Under the draft proposals, female researchers who take maternity leave will still be expected to produce the same number of high-quality research publications as their colleagues. You can read the full consultation document here.
Read our press release here: New research guidelines will penalise female academics, union warns
A brief overview of the political background.
Science and Technology Committee to examine 'impact' proposals
Following UCU lobbying, the Science and Technology Select Committee launched an inquiry into science funding and one aspect the committee will be particularly interested in is the proposals for 'impact'. The committee was interested in 'what evidence there is on the feasibility or effectiveness of estimating the economic impact of research, both from a historical perspective (for QR funding) and looking to the future (for research council grants)'. The report was published on 24 March 2010: The impact of spending cuts on science and scientific research (.pdf)
Political parties shifted positions on impact
Ahead of the 2010 general election, the Conservatives said they would 'delay the implementation of the Research Excellence Framework so that it could be reviewed - because of doubts about whether there is a robust and acceptable way of measuring the impact of all research'. Read more here.
The Liberal Democrats said that while they believed in the value of considering impact, 'such considerations should not be used to decide whether projects are funded or not, even as tie-breakers; we recognise that the economic impact of science is inherently unpredictable, and making funding decisions on uncertain premises could ultimately be damaging. We are therefore opposed to the use of non-evidence based impact predictions when deciding resource allocations, whether that be in grant awards or through the Research Excellence Framework.' Read more here.
HEFCE acknowledge UCU pressure
On 26 March 2010, HEFCE announced the result of their consultation, acknowledging UCU's leading role in opposing their impact proposals. HEFCE said: 'A minority of responses, notably UCU, some of the academic associations, individual departments, individual researchers and others, opposed or objected to assessing the impact of research in the REF, even with a lower weighting. The UCU submitted a petition to withdraw the impact proposals, signed by 17,500 people, although the petition presented the proposals as seeking to predict the impact of research before it is carried out, rather than assessing 'historical' impacts as we had proposed. Their key concerns were that the REF would harm long-term, curiosity-driven research or disadvantage arts and humanities research, or that the challenges involved in assessing impact would be insurmountable.'
HEFCE announce delay in REF until after the election
On 1 April 2010, it was reported in the Times Higher that HEFCE would be delaying the implementation of the REF until after the election. David Sweeney, director of research at HEFCE announced that universities could expect a minimum of another year's delay to the current timetable, pushing the REF assessment to 2014 and REF-based funding to 2015. Mr Sweeney was clear that the immense public debate over the 'impact' proposals lay at the heart of this decision: 'It has got to be delayed by a year because we are having a more detailed discussion about impact than we expected.'
Victory for research - plans to force economic impact into research postponed
On 9 July 2010 UCU welcomed the announcement from the new minister for universities and science, David Willetts, that there would be a one-year delay in order to review proposed changes to the REF because of concerns about the rigour of the criteria for assessing 'impact' and its acceptance by academics: UCU welcomes decision to postpone plans to force economic impact into research. UCU's Stand Up for Research campaign was instrumental in questioning the credibility of the 'impact' agenda.
However, a recent study from the higher education funding councils argues that the 'expert review of case studies is an appropriate means for assessing impact' and that the 'the case study approach should be developed further for use in the REF'. The pilot study - published in November 2010 - argued that a 'common broad approach for all disciplines based on case studies should be possible, with generic criteria and the same weighting for impact'. At the same time, it recognised that the 'assessment in the first full REF will still be developmental' and that as a result the 'weighting of impact in the REF should be considered carefully'. It suggested one option would be for impact to have a lower weighting than 25% for the 2014 REF.
UCU's policy team sought views on the pilot study report (.pdf), particularly from colleagues in the 29 participating HEIs.
Research excellence framework - 'impact' back on the agenda
InMarch 2011UCU said the government was showing 'disgraceful neglect' towards universities and the academic community after it announced plans for the future of university research funding.
Universities minister, David Willetts, delayed the announcement after a campaign led by UCU to scrap a proposal that would see 25% of future research to be assessed on 'economic impacts'. But UCU said he had broken his promise to listen to academics as the government announced that the impact element will still be a key part of how research quality is assessed. Under the new framework the three elements being assessed will be weighted as such - output 65%, impact 20% and environment 15%: Government has broken promise to academics on research funding
At our Higher Education Sector Conference in May 2011, we reiterated our policy of opposition to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). We believe that the REF will have a detrimental impact on the UK higher education system, including the demoralisation of staff, discriminatory practices and possibly the closure of departments. We are monitoring the REF and are adopting a vigorous and broadly-based campaign against damaging aspects of the proposals, particularly the 'impact' agenda.
After the proposal for including 'economic and social impact' of research in core funding was announced, there was a huge wave of protest from the academic community. UCU published an online petition against including impact which attracted 17,570 signatories in just over seven weeks. This included six Nobel laureates, eighty Fellows of the Royal Society and over three thousand professors. UCU and academics are concerned that the 'impact' elements will undermine support for basic research across all disciplines as well as disproportionately disadvantaging research in the arts and humanities.
See also the circular 'Funding and assessing research after 2008, Nov 06' for information on other UCU activity in this area.
Discoveries that would not survive the REF [84kb] (opens in a new window)
'There may be lessons too about the age-old point that time-and-again it is only when discoveries are made that possible applications become obvious': A story about an almost extinct species - left field science, by Sir Harold Kroto [40kb] (opens in a new window)
Read UCU's letter on the imbalance of the REF steering group [17kb] (opens in a new window)
Hear also from 2009 Chemistry Nobel prizewinner Venki Ramakrishnan - video at nature.com
The statement below opposing the REF proposals has now been submitted to HEFCE alongside UCU's response to the consultation. Thank you to all 17,570 people who signed.
UCU response to the REF consultation [435kb] (opens in a new window)
Signed statement on the REF proposals [2Mb] (opens in a new window)
- Giant Albert Einstein joins union protests in Parliament
- Third of professors would quit UK over research row, warns poll
The latest proposal by the higher education funding councils is for 25% of the new Research Excellence Framework (REF) to be assessed according to 'economic and social impact'. As academics, researchers and higher education professionals we believe that it is counterproductive to make funding for the best research conditional on its perceived economic and social benefits.
The REF proposals are founded on a lack of understanding of how knowledge advances. It is often difficult to predict which research will create the greatest practical impact. History shows us that in many instances it is curiosity-driven research that has led to major scientific and cultural advances.
If implemented, these proposals risk undermining support for basic research across all disciplines and may well lead to an academic brain drain to countries such as the United States that continue to value fundamental research.
Universities must continue to be spaces in which the spirit of adventure thrives and where researchers enjoy academic freedom to push back the boundaries of knowledge in their disciplines.
We, therefore, call on the UK funding councils to withdraw the current REF proposals and to work with academics and researchers on creating a funding regime which supports and fosters basic research in our universities and colleges rather than discourages it.