REF Results and Research in the UK
In December 2014 results of the UK “Research Excellence Framework” (REF) were released, and now the funding councils for England & Wales and for Scotland are making decisions in light of these results. The REF is the latest version of the periodic ordeal suffered by UK scholars and universities in which departments submit up to four publications (from the preceding period since the previous such review) of each member of academic staff who is “submitted” for the review. These publications are rated by committees appointed for the particular subject areas/disciplines (or combinations of smaller fields of study) on a scale of 0 to 4 (4 = a publication of international significance that contributes in some noteworthy way to knowledge of a given subject, i.e., the sort of publication that everyone working on the topic should read and that will likely be cited for years/decades to come).
The REF exercise (formerly called the “Research Assessment Exercise” or RAE) produces ratings of departments, not named individuals. UK universities are funded by public funds in two streams or “envelopes”: A certain amount per student (the teaching “envelope”) and a certain amount in the research “envelope.” The latter amount is calculated by the funding councils using REF results. Indeed, the major point of the whole exercise is to give the funding councils a way of judging how much of the latter “envelope” to award to each university.
There are also some curious features of this whole exercise that show that it really has little to commend it as an academic assessment of publications and departments.
For example, these committees are expected to judge publications that in a good many cases have been published only short months (or even weeks) before the submission deadline. How a committee can judge in advance that a given publication is to become seen, for example, as discipline-changing so early in the life of the publication is a mystery to me. But, it’s what the government says must be done, and so . . . it’s done.
There is also some game-playing by university departments. As I’ve noted, the results don’t name individuals, but give a department-based assessment. Departments want to obtain a high rating, of course, both because of the prestige factor (the results typically used in advertising and recruitment) and because there are the financial consequences mentioned already. Departments, however, are free to submit as many or as few of their academic staff as they wish. So, if a given department has only some, or a few, people whose publications are likely to get high ratings, they can submit only these people, hoping to get a collective high rating for the department.
But the announced results don’t indicate what percentage of members of a department have been submitted. In Divinity here in Edinburgh, we submitted 90% of academic staff this time. But some places submitted much smaller percentages. This could give a misleading impression, the REF results perhaps reflecting the research of only a small portion of a given department. (Prospective postgraduate students take note.)
So far as biblical studies is concerned, this REF got off initially to a curious start. When the committee was initially announced, there was no one recognizable as a contributing biblical scholar on it. After strong representations to the body responsible for the REF (English Higher Education Funding Council) and the chair of the relevant committee, eventually two respected biblical scholars were added to the committee. This was a curious situation because I am reliably told that in this REF the publications in biblical studies comprised some 19% of the total of published works submitted in Theology and Religious Studies. Given that this committee received submissions in all areas of, and approaches to, religion studies and in all religions, that 19% has got to be one of the largest single subject areas, if not (perhaps) the largest. Anyway, it’s done, and now the funding councils will apportion funds according to their chosen policies. As Emeritus Professor, I’m out of the whole ordeal now, and thoroughly sympathetic with colleagues who aren’t.