Universities’ REF policies are hitting non-researchers for six

Forcing teaching-focused academics to produce 3* research is like asking a world-class cricket bowler to focus on batting, says a research director

March 14, 2023
View of a cricket batsman from behind the stumps
Source: iStock

The 2019 Ashes Test match between England and Australia at Headingley has entered cricketing folklore for the astonishing, match-winning 135 scored by England’s talismanic all-rounder, Ben Stokes. Yet it is worth reflecting that without bowler Jack Leach’s 1 not out, the pair’s last-wicket partnership of 76 would not have been possible. Sometimes even small contributions can be highly significant because of what they free up others to do.

It strikes me that there is an important lesson for universities in this – particularly regarding their approach to the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

When it was announced that all staff with a “significant responsibility” for research would be required to submit at least one output to the 2021 REF – abolishing the previous discretion that universities had over who to submit – it was presumed that the so-called long tail of staff who do not publish 3* (internationally excellent) or, preferably, 4* (world-leading) papers would be transferred on to teaching-only contracts. This division of labour, it was thought, would quickly become part of the reality of modern universities – particularly given the increased emphasis on teaching that the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) was expected to drive.

THE Campus views: Don’t let the REF tail wag the academic dog

Although the contracts of many staff at some institutions were indeed changed, the majority of institutions, my own included, decided to push everyone into becoming 3* researchers instead. The problem is that this potentially devalues and detracts from other roles and specialisms to which some individuals are better suited and, in some cases, for which they were originally appointed. For those people, the new research targets are highly demotivating, particularly given that achieving two 3* papers in a REF cycle, as my university is asking for, will still be seen as mediocre by those setting the research policies.

Such strategies might appear to pay off when departments increase their research funding allocations – which are determined on the basis of volume as well as quality – but they undermine the notion of teamwork, which is essential to the effective operation of departments. This is particularly true at business schools – which, although they fared well in REF settlements, appear to be ignoring the law of comparative advantage by pushing the same research targets on to all staff.

I am primarily a researcher but would like to work more closely with colleagues who can help to translate my research into practical teaching content or into real-world impact through their professional networks. As well as freeing up more time for me to do research, these colleagues could also help to create new research proposals, drawing on different theoretical perspectives or addressing diverse real-world or pedagogical research questions.

The opportunity cost must be considered of demanding a 3* or 4* paper from a specialist educator or business coach, compared with asking the same of a principal investigator with multiple research assistants on a large grant. This was underlined to me by a pro vice-chancellor for research at a recent internal meeting, who said: “We will have to ask people to stop doing things – but not everyone wants to give up their teaching”.

The England bowler Jimmy Anderson has his own history of batting heroics, having taken part in the highest tenth-wicket stand in Test match history (198). Yet he also holds the record for the number of Test wickets taken by a fast bowler (685 and counting). And the idea that the England management would ask him to do a bit less bowling to make sure he scored a century (or two half centuries) each season would clearly be ludicrous. Anderson might take pride in his occasional forays with the bat, but he is primarily selected because, however many runs it scores, his team cannot win without well-motivated, quality bowlers to bowl out the opposition.

In the same vein, a university cannot win – in educational terms, if not in league tables – without high-quality, well-motivated and well-supported educators and programme leaders. But until research leaders and funders start to emphasise the value of partnerships with colleagues who bring different skill sets, institutional research targets will continue to hit non-researchers for six.

The author is a departmental research director working in a UK business school who wishes to remain anonymous.


Print headline: REF policies just not cricket

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Reader's comments (5)

The minute funding follows teaching assessments then sense might descend upon the REF/TEF landscape. (Not to mention KEF!) Unfortunately, as a sector we are not willing to be subject to such scrutiny. TEF is a pretty meaningless proxy.
The same logic should work towards all components - if someone is a brilliant lecturer, why should they need to excel at teaching or supervision?
I fear all the use of these metrics are the same old same old. Ostensibly meritocratic sticks used to beat anyone with by increasingly corporate management. Unfortunately because so many academics are possessed by the spirit of Boxer in Animal Farm, they submit to the self destructive mantra of I must work harder. Work harder for who? Universities on the whole do not care about you, your career or your ambitions. They only care in as much that they require you to contribute to institutions and their various bottom lines. I had enough of the endless jumping through hoops only to find no reward for the exercise. It really upto academics to challenge this and not just through strikes but by setting genuine criteria for academic work. This isn't easy but as it stands the system is not structured to support genuine intellectual endeavour.
I don't understand how we can have university lecturers who don't do research. It seems impossible. If you're not an active member of your field, how can you be up to date? If students are behind taught by teachers who no longer do anything but teach, then uni is just three more years of secondary school.
At Oxford we are nearly all teaching focused, but we get to rely on the handicap of the brand. We teach two to three subjects and thus most of our teaching is not research led. There are a few big name professors but many of us using that title have only a handful of top peer reviewed papers. The college system means we often teach like a teaching fellow at a post 1992 university.