Research England – Staff circumstances and submissions to REF 2021

Research England – Staff circumstances and submissions to REF 2021

31 August 2018


Draft guidance on making submissions to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), published in July 2018, proposes how researchers’ personal circumstances should be accounted for when making submissions for the next REF. This builds on the development of measures to promote equality and diversity since the funding bodies’ consultation on many aspects of the second REF following Lord Stern's independent review.

We thought it would be useful to set out some background to the proposals, and run though the potential advantages and drawbacks.

Decoupling staff from outputs

One of the review’s recommendations was to break the direct link between staff outputs in the assessment process. The thinking was that this would provide more flexibility when making submissions, and so remove the need to take account of the effect of staff circumstances on productivity.

While the sector widely supported this in responses to the funding bodies’ consultation, some were concerned that a flexible approach to the submission of research outputs would not on its own sufficiently promote equality and diversity. Could this lead to discriminatory REF selection or recruitment behaviours, and/or negatively affect career progression as a result of there being no formal way to account for staff with fewer outputs? Others supported a lighter touch method than that used in REF 2014 to reduce burden, cost and unnecessarily intrusive procedures. In short, the sector expressed mixed views about whether reduced burden sufficiently justified the lack of measures to account for individual circumstances.

In November 2017, the funding bodies ultimately confirmed that the direct link with staff would be removed. Rather than a set number of outputs returned for each staff member, the new exercise will require a set number of outputs based on the number of staff submitted, with at least a minimum of one and maximum of five outputs for each staff member.

To support equality and diversity, the funding bodies also said arrangements would be made to take account of staff circumstances in two ways: first, to allow staff to be returned without having the minimum of one output, where exceptional circumstances have affected their ability to meet this requirement. Second, that measures would be put in place to recognise where departments or other HEI groupings (making a submission as a ‘unit’) may have fewer outputs overall to choose from where they have higher proportions of staff with individual circumstances. 

Supporting equality and diversity

The proposals set out in the ‘Draft guidance on submissions’ build on earlier decisions. On the second method outlined above, they take account of concerns about an approach focused solely on the effects of staff circumstances on the overall available output pool, rather than on individuals’ contributions to this. The proposals allow fixed reductions in the number of outputs to be submitted for periods of absence from work (or where the effect has been equivalent to absence) for a range of equality-related circumstances, including family-related leave and career breaks.

As with REF 2014, requests for reductions will be optional. We anticipate that many units will manage the effect of circumstances within the new flexibility to return between one to five outputs for staff, while having clear information available to them on the range of circumstances affecting staff.

Balancing the pros and cons

The REF aims to promote equality and diversity by ensuring that differences in productivity that result from equality-related staff circumstances are recognised, and by seeking to address potential negative incentives resulting from this.

An approach based on tariffs that are set out in advance aims to do that. This would recognise the effect of circumstances on productivity, and may help reduce pressures on individual staff to produce work at the same rate as unaffected staff. This would also recognise units that have a relatively high proportion of affected staff, addressing potential disincentives around recruitment and career progression.

There are, of course, consequences to all of this.

First, institutions may be concerned about the increase in burden associated with collecting and submitting information about staff circumstances. Although we will seek to keep information requirements to a minimum, institutions will need robust processes in place to collect the necessary information. The flexible approach to the output pool should also result in reduced pressure on individuals to disclose sensitive information than in the previous exercise.

A second potential drawback is that increased concentration of the output pool resulting from allowed reductions may potentially lead to under-representation of the research of certain staff groups.

Given this, we want to hear your views on these issues through the consultation. In the meantime, there will be an opportunity to hear more about the proposals during the consultation events on the draft guidance and criteria we are running in September, or through our webinars on the draft guidance and criteria.