REF2021: Adding Insult to Injury

31st January 2019.

57 days to Brexit and 659 days to the REF submission, which, if you need reminding, will be 27th of November 2020. At least Research England and the other UK funding bodies have their rules and guidelines published well in advance of the deadline. But hey – you never know. Remember the last-minute requirement for ‘impact’ last time?

Times Higher reports today that employees who have been made redundant by HEIs may still have their work submitted to REF2021. I imagine their permission is not required.

A consultation document released by the REF in July 2018 had asked for responses to a proposal in Paragraph 206.b which “sets out the funding bodies’ intention to make ineligible the outputs of former staff who have been made redundant (except where the staff member has taken voluntary redundancy). This proposal reflects the funding bodies’ view that, in recognition of the HEI’s intentions regarding the post, including such outputs would not be consistent with the principle of non-portability. It also responds to concerns about the potential negative incentives that may be created in including these outputs.”

The steer in the question is obvious, and yet it has apparently been overturned by the intervention of some powerful voices. In the final version of the REF2021 decisions published today, any mention of outlawing submission of work by staff who have been made redundant has been removed. Instead, paragraph 150 states: “Outputs in the submitted output pool may be attributed to former staff, previously employed as Category A eligible in the assessment period”.  

So why the change? Times Higher reports that ‘the funders’ raised “the significant unintended consequences of doing otherwise”, which apparently amounted to discussing “sensitive information about staff employment with those responsible for selecting outputs”. Find me a research unit where the casualties of redundancy aren’t already an open secret, if not actively contrived by those very selectors. The justifications extend towards the fanciful: “Our concern would be that removing the option to include submissions from former fellows for example would be a disincentive for universities to take on fellowships,” said Catriona Firth, head of REF policy at Research England”. As if universities would abandon the cheap research force that such fellowships represent, but now, instead, as the UCU statement worded it, “the move would be a green light for universities to treat staff like a disposable commodity and entrench the casualisation of early career researchers”.

It is more likely that universities will feel emboldened to abandon any commitment to sustainable, secure career pathways, especially from postdoctoral posts to lectureships, if they feel they can easily terminate employment and still retain the fruits of that casually discarded labour.

David Sweeney is quoted in the Times Higher article: “it would be unfair to penalise people who would want their outputs to be counted, simply in order to appease those who do not”. As if the only controversy at stake was a question of being counted in the REF when, presumably, you would have no input to those discussions, let alone benefit, after redundancy.

Meanwhile, I query Times Higher’s interpretation of the ruling on who is included under the designation ‘former staff’. Paragraph 211a states that outputs may be included: “For staff who remain employed at the institution, but are no longer employed as Category A eligible staff on the census date (for example, senior administrative staff), any outputs that were first made publicly available at the point the staff member was employed as Category A eligible”.

Times Higher’s understanding of this is: “the guidance says that academics who change from a teaching and research or research-only contract during a REF cycle are classed as former members of staff and that outputs which were first made publicly available when they were on their old contract are still eligible for submission.”

I disagree. The example given in Paragraph 211a indicates the REF envisages cases where an employee on a research or teaching and research contract has subsequently changed their role to become e.g. a dean, pro vice chancellor or other senior administrator. Universities have, unethically, been gaming the system by moving academics from teaching and research contracts onto teaching-only contracts. Often this is not the choice of the academic, but imposed on them by a department which disapproves of their research, or (often as a result of poorly conducted internal audits and mock exercises) anticipates it would be graded at less than 3*. It would be appalling if this behavior were to be rewarded by allowing submission of their research. Fortunately, Times Higher’s reading would appear to be contradicted by this paragraph:

212. The outputs of staff who continue to be employed by the institution as Category A eligible staff (i.e. meet the criteria set out in paragraph 117) but who no longer have significant responsibility for research on the census date are not eligible.

Very clearly, this rules out submitting the work of those academics who have had their research role explicitly removed by the institution. Nevertheless, expect this to become contested as universities cavil about Schroedinger’s researcher:

Paragraph141. Staff with significant responsibility for research are those for whom:

a. ‘Explicit time and resources are made available’. Indicators of this could include:

a specific proportion of time allocated for research, as determined in the context of the institution’s practices and applied in a consistent way

research allocation in a workload model or equivalent.

b. ‘To engage actively in independent research’. Indicators of this could include (HEIs are also advised to refer to the indicators of independence, paragraph 132, as additional guidance on this aspect):

eligibility to apply for research funding as the lead or co-applicant

access to research leave or sabbaticals

membership of research centres or institutes within the HEI.

c. ‘And that is an expectation of their job role’. Indicators of this could include:

current research responsibilities as indicated in, for example, career pathways or stated objectives

expectations of research by role as indicated in, for example, job descriptions and appraisals.

Lots of room there for last minute retrospective restoration of an individual’s research ’allocation’.

The announcement has been greeted with expressions of outrage by academic Twitter. “Thought the academic employment environment couldn’t get worse”, tweeted @DrJoGrady. @DavidToke commented: “This isn’t even neoliberalism. This is feudalism”. @sstroschein2 wondered if this ruling will survive a legal challenge. I rather hope @EricRoyalLybeck ‘s  graphic stands as a prediction of a rather large uprising.


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