REF: the other jewel in the crown

I have heard so much about the TEF recently that it makes me want to update you on this other jewel in the crown, the REF. Since February I have visited nearly all Schools and Centres, and the REF was the first item on my agenda. I found everybody well informed, well prepared and passionate about the REF. I am confident our submission for REF2021 will be the best possible.

Should we hire new academics to improve our REF result? The main part of the income generated by most academics comes from teaching, not from REF outputs. So hiring new academics just for the REF is impossible. There needs to be a link with teaching expansion. As you know, teaching expansion is a challenge right now. Dropping an isolated star into a group is risky as well. It is best to develop groups. Academics are not football players (but let me remind you that Belgium beat England 2-0 in Russia earlier this year!).

Should everybody go on a sabbatical before the end of 2020, to produce a magnum opus? Of course, but you will be aware that we need to continue educating students. I think a magnum opus is mostly the result of many attempts. It was Apollo 11 that landed on the moon, not Apollo 1. However, please produce your top output before your 11th sabbatical.

I have had discussions with the Directors of Research, Unit of Assessment Coordinators, the Associate Deans for Research, Research Services and, with KIE on how best to use our scarce resources to increase REF income. This is not easy, because the allocation method for REF income is only clear after the results are known. I am talking about the financial rewards for 4* versus 3* etc. We have decided to invest extra in improving our impact case studies. We have invested £65k centrally, the Faculties have matched £68k, the Schools £35k and, we have added £22k from restricted GCRF income. This makes a total of £190k investment in the academic year 17/18.  My special thanks go to Tim Hopthrow, Dan Mulvihill and Catherine Richardson for finding convincing arguments to invest in REF impact. Thanks also to Research Services, for being so flexible. We will make a similar investment this year, and are currently gathering proposals. It’s important that the proposals for new investment show that last year’s investment has been well spent.

We are currently running the fourth mock REF. There will be one more end 2019. Thanks for your cooperation with this. For the first time we have the opportunity to submit different numbers of outputs per academic. This requires some adaptation from Schools and Research Services alike. I hope that Schools will continue to use their external contacts that have helped with the pilot REF last year. If you think your output is world leading, why not ask the world?

I sometimes find that I am the least passionate person about REF in the University. The REF is a mechanism to distribute funding based on peer review. It is very valuable because it is net income. Research grants are mostly ‘money in, money out’: we spend all the income on expenses, direct and indirect, related to the grant. REF income is unrestrained, and this is rare nowadays. However, REF provides no guidance for individual development. You will never know whether you had a 4* output or a 2*. Did the panel agree unanimously? Were they exited when reading your output? Would they still rate your output the same four years later? At the University of Kent we are developing detailed career guidance, called the Academic Career Map. I think this will be more valuable than guestimates based on the REF. The REF is about financial rewards for Units of Assessment. Your career is about you. Use the map.

Professor Philippe De Wilde, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research & Innovation