Post #017: Academic assessment in the REF era (part I)

Glasgow, March 31, 2018

In 2014 the Research Excellence Framework (REF) concluded its first assessment after replacing the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) [1] as a periodic exercise that allowed the (at the time) four UK higher education (HE) funding bodies [2] to allocate funds to UK HE institutions based on the quality and impact of the research of the latter. During this first assessment, 191,150 research outputs were submitted on behalf of 154 UK HE institutions, and these outputs were organised into 36 units of assessment (UOAs), and subsequently assessed by 36 expert sub-panels [3], overseen by 4 main panels (A-D). The complex work of preparing, coordinating and conducting this task led not only to an assessment of the research “outputs” [4] of the country’s HE institutions, but also to an assessment of their “impact” [5], and the “environment” that these institutions provide [6]. Expectedly, each of these assessed elements had its own documentation requirements, its own assessment criteria and, eventually, a different weight on the overall quality assessment of the submissions [7].

Although after a closer look, one realises that the nature, the criteria and the weighting of the assessed elements could be subject to debate, there are three important facts that one needs to take into account before attempting to criticise REF. The first is that the design of the REF is the result of thorough consultation, experience [8] and revision; even in its current exercise (REF2021), the REF is actively evolving and revising its policies. The second is that the administrative complexity of the REF is an unavoidable necessity towards its fairness, considering the weight it has in dictating the allocation of approximately £2 billion of research funding on an annual basis. Finally, the third is that the UK has an established, dynamic and world-leading research sector; in this respect, the REF is an assessment tool designed to address the needs of both the reality and the priorities of the UK HE institutions and the country’s economy.


Notes: [1]: the last RAE was conducted in 2008; [2]: namely, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Scottish Funding Council, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, and the Department for the Economy (Northern Ireland Executive); [3]: the UOAs (and their respective sub-panels) were organized in order to cover a basic spectrum of scientific disciplines; [4]: as “outputs” the REF2014 considered the product of any form of research; [5]: as “impact” the REF2014 considered any beneficial effect that the conducted research had, beyond academia; [6]: as “environment” the REF2014 considered the strategy, available resources and infrastructure that supported research; [7]: outputs, impact and environment counted towards 65%, 20% and 15% of the REF2014 overall results, respectively; [8]: the first RAE in the UK took place in 1986 (under a Margaret Thatcher Government), and since then in 1989, 1992, 1996, 2001 and 2008.

Citation: Zarros A. Post #017: Academic assessment in the REF era (part I). 2018; 31-Mar.