REFlections on REF2014

With all dust settling over the REF2014 and the chin-stroking in full force, much of the critique of the practice seems to be focused on the vacuity of the entire exercise, and how multiple universities have spun the results to make themselves as good as they possibly can be. Vacuous, overly-bureaucratic, pointless, list-mania, these were some of the words labelled at the exercise that I saw in the aftermath. Today in the Guardian, Professor Scott claims that “everyone was a winner – if you believe the spin put on the results“, suggesting that university PR departments were able to massage the statistics to highlight just how ‘world-leading’ they were. But is this spin all bad? Perhaps not…

There is no doubt that the REF2014 exercise is indeed a troubling practice. Its militant codification of research suffocates critical thinking and research practices that do not conform to the bean-counting logistics of the Kafka-esque university management structure. It pressurises academics, who should be the leading edge of society’s critical thinking, to conduct research that has ‘impact’ and could be worthy of another star or two. The REF, like so many other league tables in other sectors (health, urban living, children’s education and pretty much every other facet of social life) is a quantification of inherently unquantifiable phenomena. Performing such acts restricts, contorts and violently subjugates subjectivity into objectivity.

However, despite the arm-waving and critique, such codification continues. Talk of REF2020 is already underway and short of a mass opt-out by every university in the country, it will likely go ahead with just as much statistical violence as the last. So how to contest it? This is where the unadulterated spin by departments up and down the country could be viewed less as the intense marketisation of higher education (although it inevitably is of course), but as a way to subvert the very nature of what justifies the REF exercise, namely ranking. The ‘main’ REF rankings were published on their website, but the Times Higher lists were the main sources of departmental chest-beating. If universities though ranked a bit lower than they liked, they chose a slightly different rank, perhaps used their subject/discipline or geographical frame (England, instead of the UK for example). All of a sudden, it was unclear who was top and who was not. The intense social media campaigns and ‘chatter’ also added further layers of confusion. And the self-analytical nature of the academy meant that the spin was lampooned, critiqued and taken apart almost as quickly as it had was spun. In short, the intense PR activity actually made a rather wonderful mess of the ranking exercise. It clouded rankings, and through an intense desire not to lose out, departments and universities pushed their story as hard as they could. It became difficult to tell which universities did well and which did not. The neoliberal exercise of codification collapsed in itself somewhat. This was, for me, perhaps the most satisfying outcome of the REF.

This is not a call for more of the same however. The REF exercise is fatally flawed and only serves to extend the horrific codification of the everyday. But short of mass sector-wide revolutionary action, if we litter the mediascape with as many conflicting messages as possible, then at least we can obscure the ‘main’ message in a haze of confusion that makes ‘consumers’ (or whoever it is these league tables are aimed at) throw their arms up in despair, and rely on more important, less codified characteristics when ‘choosing’. Resist the REF? If we give it as much oxygen as possible it might just die by itself. And on that note, did you see how well my department did…?

One comment

  1. Mark Reed (@lecmsr) · February 5, 2015

    I agree that REF is a crude and subjective measure of research excellence and impact, but it is the best that we have, and I think it is useful, both for job-hunting as an academic and for students trying to decide where to study, to have some ranking of research excellence and impact. Of course, your decision to take a job or study in a particular department will be influenced by many other factors – in my case primarily the values of those I’d be working with. But research rankings are still useful inputs to such decisions.

    I agree that it is likely that REF is distorting perceptions of what counts as impact across the sector, and that this may not always be helpful, excluding certain conceptions or activities. In fact I’m developing a research proposal at the moment to try and see how the REF process led to certain impacts being selected, and how these were subsequently edited and framed.

    I don’t see how this process particularly stifles critical thinking though? This is already done effectively by disciplines who guard their practices, languages and customs through the peer-review process in the established journals in their field. Inasmuch as REF replicates these disciplinary structures through its panels, it could be seen to do this, but I would argue it is simply reflecting what is already wrong with the academy. As an interdisciplinarian, this worried me going into REF2014, but I was pleasantly surprised to find no evidence that my work was downgraded by the panel, despite the fact that it didn’t really fit what anyone would normally describe as “planning”.

    Finally, I agree that many aspects of impact are very hard to quantify, but not all aspects – and I don’t think that these challenges are a good enough justification for us to avoid assessing the impact of our work. Although there is worrying potential for the inclusion of impact in REF to distort the engagement between the academy and society, as people play games to “use” stakeholders to “get” impact, it also has the potential to incentivise knowledge exchange and impact generating activities in the academy. I run a national training course on knowledge exchange for impact and am seeing evidence of this already, which I think is a very good thing.

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