Does the REF motivate or discourage research staff?

Lord Stern’s review of the REF considered the cost and bureaucracy involved in running the sector-wide research audit, the “game-playing” tactics used by institutions and how reforms might improve the quality of UK research.

Whilst analysis by Len Ole Schäfer, a visiting doctoral scholar at the UCL Institute of Education, has investigated how the REF affects the day-to-day lives of academics? 23 UK academics and about 10 higher education policy advisers within government and various sector bodies were interviewed on how they perceive the REF and its impact on academic life.

Mr Schäfer, whose study into the impact of performance assessment was funded by the German Ministry of Education and Science, explained that there was a clear difference between academics’ and advisers’ views of the REF.

For those charged with putting the REF into action, the exercise was seen largely as a positive motivation, which pushed academics into producing better research outputs.  But the prevailing view among those academics in chemistry, history and sociology interviewed by Mr Schäfer was quite different, he said.

“For most interviewees, it creates pressure and stress, producing a decrease in the quality of research,” he said, adding that those interviewed spoke about depression and burnout resulting from the pressures created by the REF.

Interviewees also explained how the REF “inhibits long-term research, blue-skies or risky research due to the short-termism” encouraged by the need to produce the requisite four papers for inclusion in the audit cycle, he said, noting that some policy advisers shared the criticism.

Those academics at lower-ranked universities tended to be less motivated by the REF to produce more outputs than those at more prestigious universities, where inclusion for assessment was often felt to be a make-or-break career moment, he added.

That issue of who is included in the REF was another major conversation point among the academics interviewed, with many believing that women are far less likely to be submitted for assessment, to the detriment of their careers.

Read the full article from Times Higher Education