Why the government should abolish the Research Excellence Framework
These research exercises date back to the early 1980s when they were instituted by Sir Keith Joseph in an effort to improve the research performance of UK universities at a time when the state essentially funded all of universities’ budgets, well before the advent of large-scale foreign student arrivals and the introduction of UK undergraduate student fees. Without a doubt they succeeded in their purpose. The question today, over three decades later, is whether the state’s involvement in organising university competition is still justified. Effectively the state is now driving the agenda in research and its organisation within universities in a way unheard of in the USA where the UK’s main university competitors are located. Indeed, the USA was the model Sir Keith had in mind that the UK, then a state monolith, should get good enough to emulate and he hoped that, once fit, it would become a market-driven sector where reputation and quality would get their market rewards. But as a result of the exercises still carrying on, a huge bureaucracy has been created both in the government agency for universities, HEFCE, and its satellites in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and also in the universities themselves. This bureaucracy is devoted to corralling academics to meet the aims of the exercise.
As usual with such grand centrally planned operations, form takes over from the substance of research. Quality is trampled underfoot in the rush to generate suitable scores for the exercise. Academic promotion or sackings are linked to these scores.[i] Administrators who are entirely ignorant of research regulate academics with orders and targets. All they know about is numbers – numbers of publications of suitable ‘grade’, numbers of students, pass rates, criteria of ‘impact’ and so on. These administrators have become the enemy of academic quality and the essential academic freedom that can generate it. Why bother with freedom, markets or competition when Soviet-style planning is sorting everything out and doling out the prizes?
In my view it is time to return universities to the disciplines of the market in higher education. The government no longer supplies university finance except in minor ways that will presumably in time disappear with the rest. Indeed even the exercises, originally justified by large-scale funding for research, no longer produce more than modest funding; and this remaining amount could easily be disbursed by the research councils as occurs in the US. We would be astonished and appalled if the government had a REF for the pharmaceutical industry, on the basis that it helps it directly or indirectly through R&D support. Yet higher education is a huge industry, on a par with pharmaceuticals and other research-orientated industries; government support and interest is welcome, dirigiste planning is not.
The market is infinitely preferable to bureaucracy and planning in its encouragement of research. The main reason for this is that the market permits competition and diversity. New journals spring up to challenge the existing wisdom as purveyed by the currently dominant journals, the 3 and 4 ones, whose conservatism prevents the free entry of new ideas. I know of academics who later got the Nobel Prize – such as Bob Lucas or Ed Prescott – or did equivalent pioneering work, whose careers would never have got off the ground in the current UK state-planned environment, simply because their ideas were unacceptable to prevailing opinion as represented by ‘top journals’. Research requires long horizons and a willingness to do things that are not currently fashionable. In economics as elsewhere the best researchers do not generally produce ‘top’ articles every year, as the REF requires; more like one or two a decade, together with a fair bit of minor commentary.
Unfortunately the exercise leads to degradation of the originality and long-term orientation of research. To get their four ‘top’ publications in some five years academics must constantly sacrifice quality for ability to please conservative editors with lookalike work. Ronald Coase, the great British economist at Chicago University, published just two great papers in his life for which he got the Nobel Prize; both charted quite new directions. Imagine how the REF would have treated him, and how administrators would have harried him!
As for impact, what on earth is the justification for this as a guide to research? If funders want ‘impact’ that is their privilege. But why should the government ask for ‘impact’ for research it no longer funds and indeed even for research it directly funds (since to demand impact is foolishly to direct what the findings should be)? Let academics decide on the trade-offs here; after all, it is not as if they too do not want their work to have maximum impact in the world at large. For them impact is a natural thing to seek since they do their research with social goals (such as improvement of the economy, the fighting of disease, the understanding of the universe) actually or subliminally in their minds. They also grasp that ‘impactful events’, such as media discussions, blogs and public debate, are all a way of promoting their ideas – advertising if you like.
Measuring ‘environment’ seems harmless enough until you ask why it is necessary. There are plenty of market-based measures of success in training PhD students – such as the sorts of jobs they get, and their completion rates – without some extra bureaucratic accolade.
Which brings one to the massive cost of this exercise. For years academics are displaced into ‘peer review’ committees for the exercise, on top of the government and university bureaucrats involved. They could all doing something worthwhile.[ii]
Once upon a time the REF was needed to shake up a government-dominated sector which had become ossified. Its job has been done. There is nothing to fear any more in letting UK universities compete in the global market place for academic output, for research as much as for students. There is much also to gain, in getting rid of layers of government and university bureaucracy, time-wasting, and administrative ignorance.
[i] In a recent IEA briefing Professors Len Shackleton and Philip Booth emphasised the way in which the REF distorts academic priorities and leads universities to ‘game’ the system.
[ii] According to the REF Accountability Revew the cost of this exercise was £250 million. The funds distributed by the REF were £1.5 billion in 2014.