REF Rumours

There can be little doubt that when it comes to business and management the REF is not fit for purpose. The REF is the UK’s system of auditing academics to ensure that taxpayer funding for research time is used properly. The REF was delayed among wranglings about what should be measured and how. Even now the criteria are not clear. Junior academics, for instance, who started their career halfway through the period that is being assessed are allowed to submit less work for evaluation – but were only told the details halfway through the process.

This uncertainty has opened the way to nefarious tactics to cheat the REF. The extent of this gaming that is swirling through the rumour mill casts serious doubt on the robustness of the process.

An activity-based cost benefit analysis would, I think, show that most departments will ends up worse off from the REF. A certain Business School near Coventry, for instance, is reported to have paid staff to leave so as not to have to submit them to the REF. Researchers with 4* publications can push up their pay and conditions – with some bought in on fractional contracts purely for their publications, promised by Heads of Departments that they won’t even need to step foot in their place of “work”. Meaning departments must employ more and more teaching fellows to do the dirty academic work that REFable researchers wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. And senior academics spend their days worrying about “impact cases” and auditing their colleagues who’s work they don’t know, like or understand using lists they disagree with rather than mentoring junior staff, teaching and doing their own research. I’m pretty sure if all that was added together, given the minimal funding coming from the government, 95% of business schools would find they were worse off from the REF. Moreover, I’m pretty sure that if you polled most academics three years ago they’d be able to predict the top 25 departments in the REF with a fair degree of accuracy.  So it’s all for what?

More recently, though, I heard that a member of the REF panel for business and management has been selling their services as a REF consultant to other departments. This reminded me of the recent scandal around exam boards in the UK. Before the worries about marking, the system was labelled as corrupt when it was discovered that exam boards offered seminars in how to pass exams – for a fee. The result was an official inquiry. The solutions that’s been offered here is for universities to have more involvement in setting exams. The problem, I think, is that our own track record here is pretty terrible.  I’d like to see an inquiry into the REF.

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