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REF2021: Reflections on purpose before the big reveal

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This blog was written by Professor Geoff Rodgers, Vice Provost (Research) at Brunel University London, for HEPI, the Higher Education Policy Institute, as part of their series of blogs reflecting on the Research Excellence Framework, the results of which will be announced this week. The blog was originally published on 8 May.

As REF results day approaches, feelings of anxiety before the big reveal begin to surface, even for those of us who have been here before. Whilst the impact of the results on income is important, and provides the focus of much speculation, most concern is about how the institutional results overall will be perceived externally. Will they raise our profile and brand, improve our ability to recruit high-quality staff and students and make us more attractive institutional partners or collaborators? Will it mark us out as an institution moving forward, or one that has entered a period of decline? 

Of course, every institution will claim they are successful in the REF. That this is possible, is one of the most important aspects of the design of the whole exercise, both for individual institutions, and for the sector’s interaction with government. This time round, with a 46 per cent increase in the number of staff submitted to the whole exercise, there will be very few institutions that cannot claim impressive improvements in the volume of high-quality research they are doing, as measured by quantities such as research power, market share or volume of 4* and 3* activity. Similarly, for the sector as a whole, we can anticipate the results will demonstrate a large increase in the volume of high-quality research being done, which will be useful for UKRI’s conversations about resources with the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, and their conversations with Treasury.  These results will also provide further evidence to reinforce the UK’s position internationally as a leading research nation. 

An often overlooked aspect of the results is what they say internally to leaders and managers about the effectiveness of an institution’s strategy. At their core, most academic strategies are framed around doing more high-quality academic work. The success of an institution is determined by making this happen. The REF results are a valuable opportunity to measure the extent to which an institution’s research strategy is working. Is it recruiting the best or most promising researchers, to work in areas that are vibrant academically and also important to society? Is it promoting and rewarding the strongest researchers, ensuring that all colleagues have the opportunity to reach their full potential, supporting colleagues to break down disciplinary barriers to create important new multidisciplinary projects and facilitating the transition of its research into benefits for society? The REF results provide a rare opportunity to answer these questions objectively. 

For me, it is this latter purpose that justifies the cost of the whole exercise. In an environment in which we are trying to increase our volume of high-quality research, the REF measures the extent to which our endeavours have been successful over the last few years, measuring our progress, and benchmarking us against the rest of the sector. Without the REF, and left to ourselves, most institutions would find it very hard to evaluate their progress with anything like this degree of rigour or detail. Thus, this week’s REF results should be seen as an opportunity for institutions to reflect on the successes and failures of their research strategies. And then reinforce the bits that are working, and change the parts that aren’t. It is this process that will, over time, ensure that the research undertaken in universities has an even greater impact on our lives and the world we live in.

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