University Research Excellence Framework should be abolished


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New IEA report identifies the shortfalls of the Research Excellence Framework BRIEFING FINAL.pdf
The Research Excellence Framework – which assesses the research generated by UK universities – is distorting the allocation of resources within universities away from teaching and knowledge dissemination, to the detriment of students.

New research from the Institute of Economic Affairs outlines the serious shortfalls of the scheme as a way to fund higher education. Despite the relatively low levels of funding distributed as a result of the REF, it seriously distorts the behaviour of universities and leads universities to try to game the system in very damaging ways.

No other country uses a scheme quite as complicated as the REF and research funding can be allocated in other ways, such as through the Research Councils.

Consequences of the REF

– Resource misallocation: The REF uses significant resources and distorts resource allocation within the higher education sector away from teaching and towards the particular type of research encouraged by the REF.

– Bureaucratic costs: It involves the appraisal of nearly 200,000 pieces of research, imposing significant bureaucratic costs within universities.

– Distorting academic priorities: Academics focus on ‘salami slicing’ research to obtain key journal articles within the submission period, rather than longer books and reports, and has led to key staff cutting back on bread-and-butter undergraduate teaching.

Distorting academic salaries: The REF raises academic salaries as universities seek to improve their REF ranking by hiring key academics who score highly on REF criteria, depriving competing universities of those academics. This sort of poaching may boost one institution’s score at the expense of another, but does nothing to boost the sector’s total research output.

– Gaming the system: Despite the relatively low levels of funding distributed as a result of the REF, universities allow their behaviour to be distorted by the process because, as a government-backed kitemark, a REF rating provides signals that are useful to universities for marketing.

– Favouring larger universities: The REF shows that most high-quality research is concentrated in a limited number of leading universities, which receive the bulk of government funding. For institutions outside this group, the REF is a distraction which can undermine teaching and student support, promote the vanity of a handful of staff, and mislead the public as a few research successes are presented as typical for the institution as a whole.

Funding projects rather than institutions

– The REF no longer serves a useful purpose and should not be repeated. Research Councils should be responsible for the allocation of research funds. Any remaining need to allocate research support to institutions, for instance for capital purposes, should rely on available metrics other than the REF.

– More generally, there is a strong case for reducing the total amount of government subsidy for research and expecting universities to generate their own support for research and scholarship or support it by reducing overhead costs. In many disciplines research has a value largely in developing academic understanding which should feed primarily into teaching. The current system leads far too many academics to focus on research as a substitute for teaching, to the detriment of students.

Notes to editors:

To arrange an interview about the report please contact Camilla Goodwin, Communications Officer: or 07821 971 443.

About the REF:

– The Research Excellence Framework (REF) assesses the research generated by UK universities. Most recently conducted in 2014, it is used by the national higher education funding councils (HEFCE in England) to help in allocating Quality Research (QR) money.

– Resources distributed according to REF criteria account for only around 4 per cent of the total turnover of the higher education sector and less than 0.2 per cent of government spending.

– The REF shows that most high-quality research is concentrated in a limited number of leading universities, which receive the bulk of government funding. Even within this group, the impact of the REF outcome is relatively minor. For example, at University College London, the funding allocated as a direct result of the REF accounts for significantly less than 6 per cent of university income.

The full report, Abolishing the higher education Research Excellence Framework, can be downloaded here.

The mission of the Institute of Economic Affairs is to improve understanding of the fundamental institutions of a free society by analysing and expounding the role of markets in solving economic and social problems.

The IEA is a registered educational charity and independent of all political parties.

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