The Squeezed Middle: What does an academic learn over their career?

There was much discussion at our recent symposium about the REF (boo, hiss). For those who don’t know, in the UK all academic departments are asked to account for their research activities every few years (seem fair enough, you might think). The way this works is that each department picks (up to) four publications by each staff member and sends them for evaluation by a panel of experts. The experts “read” all the publications and rate them out of four (with four being acceptable and, increasingly, any other score being seen as a failure). Where an academic has less than four publications submitted the remainder out of their four are graded at zero. Averages are averaged and departments ranked.

Anyone with half a brain who thinks about it for more than three seconds can see that this system is far from objective and is open to a great deal of manipulation (speak to anyone about Warwick Business School for examples of how to do so in a moronic way). In addition, anyone who’s ever heard of Merton’s Matthew Principle will understand that this system is set up so that BIG NAME PROFESSORS at BIG DEPARTMENTS win (and have the option of selling their services as consultants to departments on how to prepare for the REF).

My concern with the REF is that there is virtually no concept of academic leadership involved when it seems so simple to incorporate it into the system. As an Early Career Research your department is allowed to submit fewer than four publications for you without incurring the zero grade punishment. Other than this, a researcher with, say, five years of experience is compared to one with thirty-five years as if they are the same. A researcher who would never be given a million-pound research grant due to their lack of experience handling large projects is compared with one who is. Researchers who are only just building up networks are compared to those who know all the editors and know where the skeletons are buried. Researchers on the middle of the pay scale are compared to those at the top. In other words, it is assumed that after five years of being a full time researcher you have learned everything you need to learn and should be a WORLD CLASS RESEARCHER. If not you are a failure.

For the REF, then, academics come in one of two forms: early career or other. There’s no concept of late career. In football punditry, the phrase to describe this situation is “men against boys”. Of course, in football men very rarely play against boys – there are different levels so that men are compared with men and boys of different ages with boys of their own age. (Sorry for the gendered example, it’s the way football pundits speak).

The solution, simple. Expand the ‘other’ category. This could easily be achieved by linking requirements to job title. This would then put a system in place to reflect the position of professors as academic leaders. It would also institutionalize a far less stressful life for other researchers who would still be able to over-perform but would not be required to perform at the level of an academic leader without the pay, support, network or tacit knowledge.

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