Tuesday, 17 July 2012

REF, ref, ref, ref...and ref

In Universities across the UK, much discussion, effort and work is currently going into thinking about REF, talking about REF and preparing for submissions to REF.

As part of that effort and discussion, there will be conversations about which staff to include and which to exclude from the final submission. 

Eligibility rules seem fairly straightforward: 2 categories of staff are eligible for inclusion: Category A staff and Category C staff.

Category A staff are defined as academic staff with a contract of employment of 0.2 FTE or greater and on the payroll of the submitting HEI on the census date (31 October 2013), and whose primary employment function is to undertake either ‘research only’ or ‘teaching and research'.

Good. That's fine then - everyone who is employed by a HEI is eligible for inclusion as long as they do research, or research and teaching. But wait.......

Research assistants, as defined in paragraph 80, are not eligible to be returned to the REF.

Oh. O K A Y. Really? Going on...

unless, exceptionally, they are named as principal investigator or equivalent on a research grant or significant piece of research work on the census date and satisfy the definition of Category A staff in paragraph 78. Research assistants must not be listed as Category A staff purely on the basis that they are named on one or more research outputs.

So research assistants can only be returned if they have been a PI, or done a significant piece of research, then. Seems fair enough, except that rule is not mentioned in relation to the rest of the category A staff (except ECRs - who are also subject to this rule about independent research) ....

I might be splitting hairs here, but hear me out. HEI's routinely discriminate against research staff, often diminutively called 'RAs', and prevent them from doing particular things, like having a permanent (or open ended) contracts and acting as principal investigators on research proposals. 

A few years ago, I was told by a university administrator (in an unnamed institution) that I could not be a PI on a proposal. There was no question. It was just not possible.  I still remember the feeling of having a very large rug pulled from under my feet, and the way that time slowed down a little bit as I took this statement in. Why? I asked. RA's are not eligible to act as PIs on research councils bids, came the reply.

Researchers are still told the same thing - even though it is complete nonsense. There are no research council rules which prevent research staff from acting as PI. Research Fellows and Associates take note. Do not believe *anyone* who tells you this - check with the funder. Some funders do preclude people from acting as PI on a grant which effectively pays their own salary, and some exclude the most junior researchers from being PIs. Others do not. E

Do you see a double whammy coming here? So, if you are in an HEI where they discourage  researchers from being PIs, then how do you become eligible for REF? If you are in an HEI which views all researchers, regardless of grade and experience as 'RAs' (=non-eligible) then how do you make your case for inclusion in REF? 

I hope I am wrong, and I hope that all those researchers that deserve to be returned in REF 2014 are included. But, based on more than 10 years of first-hand experience working in HEIs as both a researcher and a lecturer, my hunch is that there will be more than a few good researchers that are incorrectly overlooked because of these criteria. At the end of the day I am very, very suspicious of rules like this, which apply ONLY to researchers. If eligibility for REF is based on being a PI, or carrying out independent research - that rule should be for ALL academic staff returned to REF, and not just the ones with researcher in their job title, or who are new to the job (=early career researcher). 


  1. hmmmm...might this not be construed as an effort to ensure that universities are not taking advantage of research staff? certainly under strategies of 'the bigger the better', I could see unis using inappropriate pressure to make jr/contract staff generate outputs for the REF. of course, if they have good outputs etc, then they should be included, and I am surprised that there is not the option to include them. but would not have interpreted it as discrimination!

  2. Thanks for the comment! I am not saying that this 'rule' is discrimination per se, but that it is symptomatic of institutional structures which continually downplay and limit the autonomy and worth of researchers. And, I reckon that in a lot of places all research associates will be excluded from REF as routine (even though one HEI's research associate is anothers research fellow)