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THE RESEARCH EXCELLENCE FRAMEWORK: Evidence of its role in driving pay inequality among UK academics

There is a clear link between professors” pay and Research Excellence Framework performance, with departments that pay higher salaries achieving better scores. That is one of the findings of research by Professor Gianni De Fraja and colleagues, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society”s annual conference at the University of Bristol in April 2017.

The study finds that the link is weakest among elite Russell Group institutions and stronger for less research-intensive universities. There is also evidence of a positive relationship between pay inequality and performance, with departments that pay substantial salaries to ”superstars” faring better in some fields.

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A new study has revealed the extent to which the controversial exercise used to assess university research in the UK encourages pay inequality among the country”s academics.

The finding comes as a government review expresses concerns about universities ”game-playing” to boost their performance in the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

Led by British Academy president Lord Stern, the review suggests the current system leads to a focus on the short term and the expensive hiring of academic ”superstars”.

Now a unique analysis has confirmed significant links between how much the nation”s 17,000 professors earn and how well their departments fare in the assessment.

The conclusion emerges from an examination of UK professors” salaries and the results of the first REF, which were published two years ago.

Study co-author Professor Gianni De Fraja, of the University of Nottingham”s School of Economics, says: ”Whether people like it or not, it seems universities get what they pay for.”

”The data clearly show that departments that pay their professors higher salaries achieve better research performance in the REF.”

”In some fields there”s also evidence of a positive link between pay inequality and performance, with departments that pay substantial salaries to ”superstars” doing better.”

Replacing the Research Assessment Exercise, the REF involves the peer-review assessment of research ”reach and significance” by 36 subject-specific expert panels.

The quality of the research carried out by academics, including professors, determines a university”s REF score, which is subsequently reflected in levels of government funding.

Professor De Fraja says: ”What makes the situation in the UK so interesting is that, other than an agreed minimum, the pay of full professors isn”t subject to national regulation.”

”This means that universities are free to compete over pay – and they appear to do so fiercely, as is reflected by the fact that some salaries are up to seven times higher than others.”

The Higher Education Statistical Agency supplied the study authors with departmental salary data for full professors in the UK in October 2013.

Using a theoretical model in which academics are inputs into the production of research quality, these were combined with the results of the first REF.

The findings indicate that the link between pay and performance is strongest in less research-active universities and weakest among elite Russell Group institutions.

The study also suggests that younger professors improve performance, especially in the sciences, and that departments with assessment panel members achieve better scores.

Professor Giovanni Facchini, another of the research”s authors, says: ”We believe our findings raise a number of important issues that should give pause for thought.”

”For example, consideration should be given to our consistent finding that having a member on the evaluation panel translates into a better outcome for a department.”

”We note that this occurs only for those quality measures that are most open to subjective judgment.”

”University-level impact and environment submissions, as recommended by the Stern review, may increase the importance of institutions placing members on REF panels.”

He adds: ”All of these results should be of great interest to UK academics, and we would argue that they also deserve wider attention.”

”This is because they contain important lessons on the effects of liberalising pay and introducing competition for funds in any system that”s largely publicly funded.”

Dr John Gathergood, another of the authors, adds: ”While some tactical behaviour may diminish, other forms are likely to emerge: for example, the recommendation that all research-active staff are used to measure the size of a department could give universities the incentive to modify contract structures.”


Key findings

• There is a clear link between professors” pay and REF performance. Across all subjects, departments that pay higher salaries achieve better scores.

• The link between pay and performance is weakest among elite Russell Group institutions and stronger for less research-intensive universities.

• There is evidence of a positive relationship between pay inequality and performance, with departments that pay substantial salaries to ”superstars” faring better, but only in some fields.

• Younger professors improve performance, especially in the sciences.

• Departments with assessment panel members achieve better scores in subjective measures of research quality.


How Much Is That Star in the Window? Professional Salaries and Research Performance in UK Universities, Nottingham School of Economics, GEP Working Paper 16/13 – Professor Gianni De Fraja, Professor Giovanni Facchini and Dr John Gathergood

Professor Gianni De Fraja

gianni.defraja@nottingham.ac.uk