REF 2028: A Statement from the Royal Economic Society and CHUDE

In response to the consultation on the Research Excellence Framework 2028: issues for further consultation following initial decisions, the Conference of Heads of University Departments of Economics (CHUDE), a committee of the Royal Economic Society, wish to put forward our collective views on the questions related to Volume Measures as listed in the consultative survey.

We want to raise our serious concerns that the proposed formula for calculating the volume of outputs to be included in a submission is based on a new definition of “volume-contributing” staff. This measurement is completely decoupled from the definition of research-active staff in the HESA, the HEI administrative database. This provides greater scope for institutions to misrepresent research power by inflating volume-contributing staff numbers by including staff with a minimal workload attributed to research and innovation. Moreover, it is stated that “Submissions will not be limited to the outputs and impacts linked to these volume-contributing staff, nor will there be any requirement for volume-contributing staff to contribute to submissions”.

The removal of a minimum number of outputs for each submitted individual is intended to “increase inclusivity of the assessment and provide an environment which is supportive of researchers establishing themselves or moving into academia”. However, institutions may choose to focus their financial resources more on recruitment/retention of “superstars”, in preference to recruiting or supporting new researchers. CHUDE recognises that the intention of the agreed changes is to move “further away from the assessment of individuals”. However, with no maximum outputs submitted for an individual, institutions will have an incentive to recruit and/or retain researchers with multiple high-quality publications. This will increase focus on the individual, with significant consequent effects on the academic market.

Furthermore, while CHUDE recognises the explicit value attributed to submissions that demonstrate a “broader range of research outputs, activities and impacts”, we note that the UK Higher Education funding bodies have offered no guidance of the metric that would be used to measure either the range or the contribution to knowledge and understanding. We note that under the lack of a transparent metric, the allowance of nil submission per volume-contributing staff may lead to the exclusion of contributions by early career researchers and those with protected characteristics in the REF cycle, and those working in non-core disciplinary areas. Not only may such individuals be omitted from a submission, but they are less likely to have been able to develop multiple world-leading outputs, and hence be at a further disadvantage in their academic career progression or the academic labour market compared to the “superstars”. Conversely, lifting the cap on the maximum submissions per volume-contributing staff may create incentives for a higher degree of specialisation and concentration of funding on fewer research-active and established academics. From a broader perspective than the REF, inequality is likely to increase.

The heightened impetus for the creation of research “superstars” while giving more freedom to the institutions to define a “volume-contributing staff” that is not anchored in the official administrative database of HESA, drives a wedge between research and innovation from teaching. This change may limit the HE sector and its dual mission for research and innovation, on the one hand, and high-quality education, on the other. In the long-run, we believe this can harm the capacity of the UK HEI to educate world-leading researchers.

Lifting the cap on the maximum number of outputs per volume-contributing staff with the minimal requirement of contractual employment of 0.2fte also creates incentives for institutions to employ academics with outstanding research capacity on 0.2fte, i.e. to import inputs and make a submission that is not representative of the output of core members of the department. We would argue that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to rely on a statement in the REF submission about how the outputs are representative of research in the area. It is not clear how sub-panels are to judge whether statements on “representativeness” reflect the true situation or what penalties sub-panels could use if they judge the outputs not to be representative. Moreover, institutions may recruit new researchers with the aim of increasing volume, but this could be on short-term (6 or 12 months) contracts, with consequent insecurity for new researchers.

Given that additional 0.2fte employment in a different institution is permitted by many EU HEI and US universities, the supply of academics interested in such contracts would be sufficient to generate a competitive market for research stars. Thus, instead, of reducing the scope for “gaming’’ the REF, the current rule may exacerbate those as the cap on the maximum number of outputs linked a volume-contributing staff is now lifted. By fostering an increased demand for academic superstars, we would expect that the new scheme would lead to heightened competition among HEIs with undesirable consequences such as the increased turnover of staff and steep salary increases for the superstars. For HEIs with constrained revenue streams, the heightened competition for superstars may lead the further casualization of teaching staff or opting out of the REF framework.

CHUDE would also like to express a view on the question regarding the possibility to submit sole-authored publications where the author is a PhD student. We feel strongly that sole-authored outputs by a PhD student should be deemed eligible for submission. By and large, student-led dissertation projects form an integral part of the postgraduate research training in the economics disciplines. Such projects are also funded by our research council under doctoral training pathways. Moreover, in the junior academic market, sole-authored outputs by job-market candidates are considered a strong signal of the research potential of the candidate. Thus, ruling out the submission of sole-authored outputs where the author is a PhD student might distort current practices and encourage possibly spurious co-authorship. This would have the undesirable consequences of harming the job-market prospects for UK-based PhD students on the international academic market.

Finally, CHUDE sees these changes as potentially favouring disciplines where the life-cycle of a publication is relatively short and where the nature of research outputs generally requires collaboration among a long list of co-authors such as those in the lab-based sciences;  conversely, it would penalise disciplines, such as economics, where the lifecycle of a world-leading publication is measured in years and relies on relatively small teams of collaborators.  Disciplines, such as lab-based sciences, typically characterised by lower student-staff ratios, would have a comparative advantage over those with high student-staff ratios due to the higher volume of staff that is supported institutionally relative to student-fee income. As already raised in the RES Statement on Funding Allocation, under the current funding methodology the social sciences have already suffered a significant loss of research funding. The proposed changes, we expect, will only exacerbate the underfunding of the economics discipline and potentially social sciences more generally.

We thank the UK Higher Education funding bodies for considering our views. We would argue strongly that the potential for creating perverse incentives on the labour market for academics will harm the research culture in UKHEI and that this will be particularly harmful for disciplines like economics where volume of publications in a REF cycle per volume-contributing staff would be small compared to other fields. We would strongly argue in favour of limiting the scope for 0-output submissions to volume-contributing staff who are in early stages of their career or who have experienced a substantial period of a career break during the REF cycle and retaining some form of a cap on the maximum outputs per volume-contributing staff. If the UK Higher Education funding bodies decide to proceed with the current framework, we would suggest that a pilot REF exercise would be a sensible way to test the impact the changes would have on the HE Sector (or HEIs).