Activism over Acrimony: Not Getting Better but Getting Beyond the UK’s Research Excellence Framework

Posted in: Education, Science and research policy

Dr Richard Watermeyer is Reader and Director of Research in the University of Bath's Department of Education.

The unavoidability of academics ‘submitting’—both deferentially and opportunistically—to a culture of excellence in UK universities is more than already confirmed by what feels like the most protracted if paradoxically lightning of transitions between the UK’s last national research performance evaluation, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014, and its future successor, REF2021. Vice-chancellors, pro-vice chancellors, deans of faculty, heads of department, directors of research, impact officers and the various other administrative personnel populating UK universities find themselves busy messaging, at what is just short of four years from the likely point of institutional submission,[1] that all academics ‘eligible’ for inclusion in REF2021—which on the advisement of the recent Stern Review of REF2014 (2016) includes all ‘research active’ staff—should be concentrating their focus on getting their REF publications and impact case studies ready. The REF is, aside from its more junior and less prominent sibling, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)—the only game in town. And what a game.

For those not in the know, the REF is the system by which publically funded research conducted by researchers working in UK universities is evaluated by disciplinary expert panels of academic and user assessors. It is the yardstick by which researchers and the institutions they are affiliated to are considered persons and places of research excellence and those, therefore, also deserving of a slice, some larger than others depending on the measure of their performance, of the pie of Government ‘Quality Related’ (QR) funding; estimated to be worth somewhere in the region of £2 billion per annum to the UK’s higher education sector. The REF, therefore, counts for a lot in the binary and co-informing contexts of 1) universities’ financial sustainability and 2) institutional reputation, esteem and marketability. Its value to UK universities is in many ways, therefore, priceless. So much so that ‘for research, see REF’.

In such context, it is perhaps unsurprising that all manner of tactics, tricks and levers of competitive advantage have been reported as committed by universities in ensuring that the research they submit to the REF is the most competitive, and that consequently, is likely to court the most favourable response from REF panellists and most generous of QR returns. In the milieu of REF2014 various game-playing was committed by universities; the most prominent of which perhaps being that of hyper-selectivity by institutions in the choice of academic staff they chose to submit—the figures for which are staggering, at least in the context of those who were excluded. Of a potential 145,000 academic researchers eligible for inclusion in REF2014, only 50,000 were evaluated. 95,000 academic researchers were, it seems, not fit-to-be counted in the context of their potential excellence. Instead, a policy by universities of cherry-picking the best was preferred.

To my mind, this says one of two things. Firstly, that two thirds of the academic researchers based in the UK are in the estimation of their institutions not up to much. Secondly, the notion of excellence articulated in the REF is even more fatuous than first thought—with first-thinking predicated on an a priori sense of the meaninglessness of the term ‘excellence’. Crudely put then, and however one values a notion of excellence, REF2014 was only a partial and highly selective measure of the performance of UK academic researchers or a vastly expensive,[2] self-fulfilling (or safe-bet) exercise involving the confirmation of those deemed excellent by their institutions as excellent by REF panellists. Consequently, where the REF in such terms is attacked for being a limited show of the strengths of UK research and concomitantly for its treatment in marginalising and disenfranchising vast swathes of the UK’s academic community, the central recommendation of the Stern review of universal submission appears at first sight a genuine effort to lessen if not eradicate the deleterious effects suffered by the academic ‘rank and file’ of an aggressive and egregious system of performance management and auditability.

A recommendation for universal submission appears something, if only minor, in the way of an attempt to placate and appease those who perceive in the REF the emasculation of academic autonomy and scientific self-sovereignty and the intensification of government and managerial regulation and control. But it achieves this subtly and in a back-handed way by saying to academics, ‘You all can be involved’. One can’t help but think, however, that such a recommendation operates almost at the level of what the great émigré sociologist Herbert Marcuse (2002) spoke of as ‘repressive desublimation’ or a mirage of participatory democracy—if academics feel involved in something then they will likely just happily go along with it. It’s perhaps not so strange then that so much of what is considered wrong with the REF relates less to how it conflicts with or corrupts an Enlightenment ideal of science or of the Humboldtian university and instead how it denies academics an opportunity to participate in its game.

I have been one among other commentators who has argued strongly for greater inclusivity and equal participation for academics in the REF. But I’m minded now to think that this focus has been a little narrow, a touch reductive and a distraction from the bigger picture of what’s wrong. Perhaps, in fact, I’ve fallen prey to the kinds of quantitative mesmerisation—the sort of which I frequently caution my students and colleagues—that tell only too cogently and conclusively the story of non-participation. Now, however, as I look again, I’m struck that the argument against the REF has become excessively entangled if not hijacked by the theme of its unequal participation.

Whilst there can be no denying that non-participation in REF2014 has been detrimental to the social fabric of UK academia, a sense of academic collegiality, citizenship and community especially, the dominant critique of the REF has perhaps mistakenly advocated for increased participation and, therefore, compliance rather than disengagement. Moreover, the critique, largely one of victimisation, has neither developed nor progressed. Certainly, it has not translated in any meaningful or substantive way into activism. Such has been the focus of observation on what the REF does to academics in ways that challenge or compromise their identity and praxis, that the academic community in the UK has ostensibly lost sight of its capacity to affect positive change. Instead, academics have preferred to privilege the pathologisation of their profession and coterminously become immobilised by the homogeneity—and in large part indirectness—of their (pseudo)disapproval. Indeed, the curse of the REF is something that some academics not only embellish, but perversely appear even to enjoy as a ‘legitimate’ opportunity with which to lament their lot and indulge almost masochistically in a nostalgia of a golden age that never was.

As the object of their disaffection, that they love to hate, the REF also, however, emboldens the reproach of their detractors who detect within their diatribe and mythologies not the cry of injustice but the whine of narcissism. Of course, apologists may explain and defend this almost ritual of academic dissatisfaction, on the basis of academics’ escalating precariousness in the era of higher education’s neoliberalization. Where universities have surrendered their status and role as sanctuaries of critical pedagogy and have allowed, seemingly with little resistance, the de-professionalisation and de-politicisation of their academic community, academics have had to confront the impossible challenge of reconciling ever-greater demands of accountability with ever-diminishing autonomy. The co-emergence of their compliance and complaint is perhaps, therefore, whilst profoundly arrestive to an ideal of academic endeavour, entirely inevitable.

An excessive recent focus on issues of participation in the REF must, therefore, be reconsidered, indeed halted. It is such single-mindedness that has perhaps blunted and/or distorted the edge of critical commentary and unwittingly served to normalize and even legitimize the REF as the locus of control in the lives of UK academics. It has also perhaps consolidated and exacerbated the narcissism that has tended to plague what A.H. Halsey (1995) called the ‘donnish dominion’ and the perception of those looking-in that has bred mistrust and justified the implementation of such new public management technologies designed to instil order among academics as an alleged herd of cats. Hence, we find academics’ REF ‘submission’ as ambivalent and dichotomous. It is volunteered yet with an affected disdain. The REF ultimately perhaps reveals a trend, a penchant even among academics for wanting to be counted rather than doing what counts.

The virtue of the REF as an opportunity for academics to perform accountability is rightly contested. It is a grossly imperfect system that fosters a multitude of undesirable behaviours that also cause to neglect the purpose and role of the university as a genuinely public institution. However, academics ought not to gorge themselves on a fixation with its imperfections; rather they might engage with accountability unto themselves. If the REF is what ascribes academic researchers in the UK their identity, they might look in its mirror for a reflection of themselves as impetus for change. Where they are then to see what they don’t like, only active and direct transgression of the rules of the game may produce an identity other than that ostensibly foisted upon them. Easier said then done, no doubt. But something needing to be done, no less.

This article originally appeared on the Social Epistemology Review & Reply Collective blog.


[1] The formal timetable for REF2021 is still to be agreed.

[2] Reported figures put the total cost of REF2014 at somewhere in the region of £240 million.


Halsey, A.H. 1995. Decline of Donnish Dominion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marcuse, H. 2002. One-Dimensional Man. Oxford and New York: Routledge.

Stern, N. 2016. “Building on Success and Learning from Experience: An Independent Review of the Research Excellence Framework.”

Posted in: Education, Science and research policy


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