Research Excellence Framework… the denouement

by Chris Bertram on December 18, 2014

In the UK, we’ve just got the results of the Research Excellence Framework, successor to the Research Assessment Excercise, and the method that the state uses to disburse a very large amount of public money. Nobody is sure why the name was changed from “exercise” to “framework”, but since you can strap a person to a frame and then compel them to submit to sundry indignities, the change seems apt. The point of the REF is to measure the quality of research done at a particular institution and to give more of it, indeed most of it, to the departments that have produced the best work. It also has other effects, such as moving universities up and down in various league tables, and doing the same for their constituent departments. One further effect of those movements is to get university managers sharpening knives and threatening to close departments and sack individuals. It is all very unpleasant.

You would hope, then, that an exercise so fateful for the lives of academics and for the distribution of public money would measure what it is supposed to measure. No doubt there is some relationship between good research and REF scores, but there are also significant problems. One of these is that people are incentivized to produce research that will meet with the approval of the assessors and that this may have a conservative effect on disciplines, which also, thereby, become more disciplinary towards the heterodox. Another is that the rules for inclusion may be constructed in such a way that research that redounds to the credit of one institution may have been done somewhere else entirely. This has, in the past, resulted in a transfer market for “high fliers” and the payment of salaries to them which may have restricted entry-level opportunities. When this happens in the UK, we’ve effectively had a near zero sum game between institutions which won’t have done much to improve the overall quality of research done. The other issue has been the question of how to include people with fractional appointments in the assessment. This time, anybody employed on a 0.2 contract (that is, effectively one day a week) could be submit the same number of “outputs” to the exercise as a full-time employee. Although the inclusion of such a person would only increase the staff numbers eligible for “QR” funding by 0.2, their papers and books would still raise the average score of the department as if they counted for one, and this average, multiplied by the staff numbers, will benefit them financially. And, of course, such a department would rise higher in the league table than its comparators, with possible ill-effects for the displaced.

Of course, there may be perfectly good reasons to offer top American scholars 0.2 contracts at UK universities. They may improve the environment, be of service to graduate students, and so on. I’ve been assured that such were the reasons the University of Birmingham employed Paul Boghassian (NYU), Hartry Field (NYU), Kit Fine (NYU), Allison Jaggar (Colorado), Stephen Neale (CUNY), Susanna Siegel (Harvard), and Ralph Wedgwood (USC) in its Philosophy department. Still, when the BBC publishes a league table saying that “most world leading research” in Philosophy in the UK is done at Birmingham, one might think that claim a misleading one.

I’m also puzzled, given the effects on the disbursement of public money, why no UK university sought to challenge the 0.2 rule in the courts, to seek judicial review, given its perverse consequences.



Metatone 12.18.14 at 11:50 am

@Chris Bertram – did you point this sleight of hand by Birmingham to any enterprising managers in your institution?

I think that expecting them to notice by themselves… well, that might have been a bit optimistic, in my experience. (Pseudo) public sector managers in places like universities and the NHS seem to readily divide into three kinds. The majority don’t seem to notice how the system can be gamed. A substantial minority do notice and get right on with gaming the system and only a few notice, but choose not to game or to whistle blow.


Tiny Tim 12.18.14 at 12:07 pm

I had a brief gig at a UK university, fresh out of grad school (adjunct equivalent job). I didn’t really understand at the time why 3 department heads essentially gave me job offers without any process (didn’t take them, maybe I should have0. Later I realized it was because it was research assessment time and while I was a young pup I did have 2 articles in top journals. They needed me, briefly at least.


New UK Prof 12.18.14 at 12:15 pm


I wonder what you think about my situation. I am (now) a full-time professor at the University of London. I was not able to take up my appointment until January 2014 because of the schedule at my previous university, so my department put me on a .2 contract for a few months, thereby allowing me to submit work for the REF. Was that fair, or do you think the department should have had to wait for the next REF? I’m genuinely curious, because I know I’m far from the only scholar who was hired in this way.


Chris Bertram 12.18.14 at 12:37 pm

Metatone: no, I didn’t, and I only became aware of this fairly recently.

New UK Prof: I don’t think anyone employed FT at another institution should get to count for a different one, and I think anyone otherwise employed on a fractional contract should get included so that their contribution to the department quality average is proportionately reduced. I also think that allowing people to to be bought in, whose research was done somewhere else, has bad effects (buying stars at the last minute). So yes, probably make them wait.


dsquared 12.18.14 at 12:59 pm

Do the American scholars actually do the one day a week (or presumably, one and a bit weeks a term)? I mean, this seems totally corrupt to me – it’s really not so very different from submitting a LIBOR quote a few points lower or higher than neutral. But if the work the UK taxpayer has paid for is not actually ever done that would be an order of magnitude worse.


Chris Bertram 12.18.14 at 1:14 pm

dsquared: I’ve been told that the American-based scholars do do useful things at Birmingham. How what they do is computed as equivalent to 0.2 of a full-time post for contractual purposes is something that I don’t know and is presumably confidential. They have clearly been able to assure their home institutions that their commitment to Birmingham won’t be of any serious detriment to NYU or wherever though.


organic cheeseboard 12.18.14 at 1:21 pm

I’m sure there’ll have been some sort of contract set up for them so their teaching doesn’t clash with teaching in the US (or they could have been given research-only contracts), but it’d be very difficult for them to neatly dovetail – our terms do usually overlap. This seems to be a short-term thing that won’t really benefit Birmingham in the long term.

The system was gamed in a similar manner last time round fairly endemically, with Professors who were recently retired invited back on 0.2 contracts because they had good publications, but at least in those circumstances they tended not to have other institutional affilitations, and the research had actually been produced while at the institution in question, using its resources as opposed to those of American universities.

There definitely does need to be a weighting on the outputs of fractional people – so a 0.2 can submit a maximum of 1. Otherwise surely another way to game the system would be to appoint lots of professors on 0.5 contracts, in effect paying them the same as FT newbies but giving them lots of time off to do research.


organic cheeseboard 12.18.14 at 1:27 pm

Sorry to double post and feel free to conflate these, but I’ve just looekd at the status of these people. They’re on 3-year temporary contracts (from memory, one-year or two-year appointments didn’t count otwards the REF – is that right?), and their roles are as follows:

The new Distinguished Professors will be fully involved in the life of our Philosophy department here at Birmingham for at least four weeks a year. They will present and discuss their research in a number of seminars and supervise doctoral students together with our permanent staff. In addition, we will organise a number of workshops and colloquia focusing on their work. The new Distinguished Research Professors will ensure that the Philosophy department at Birmingham is one of the most exciting places for philosophers.

4 weeks a year seems pretty ropey really, for (probably) one or two guest lectures each and a few chats with PhD students. Visiting Professorhips, in other words, which would normally not count towards the REF.


organic cheeseboard 12.18.14 at 2:00 pm

And (hopefully) finally – looking at the REF guidelines on overseas-based academics:

Academic staff who are employed by the submitting HEI and based in a discrete department or unit outside the UK are eligible only if the HEI demonstrates that the primary focus of their research activity on the census date is clearly and directly connected to the submitting unit based in the

Seems pretty easy to game that one – I wonder when the initial workshops by these people at Birmingham took place. Around November 2013, by any chance?


Kean 12.18.14 at 3:11 pm

I think the US system is set up to be very compatible with this whole 0.2 contract business. Most profs there are paid a 9-10 month salary and then expected to make up the rest from grants, consultancies, etc. It’s almost like the REF was designed to enable such synergies! (Got a lovely bit of management-speak in there at the end)


Shelley 12.18.14 at 3:48 pm

Just the titles of those two predisposes me to expect they will be useless.

The academic world needs a language less Orwellian.


harry b 12.18.14 at 4:56 pm

In addition to Kean’s comments about US university contracts, we typically have some number of days per year within the 9 month contract during which we are permitted to work as freelance for other people on a contractual basis. This is designed to allow lawyers, doctors, and engineers (oh, and probably economists!) to supplement their salaries with practice or consultancies. One day a week is not untypical. Given what I know about the state of undergraduate education at NYU I doubt that 1 day a week materially affects anyone’s usefulness to NYU. (I wouldn’t let a kid go there as an undergrad even if I could afford it, but maybe the stories I have heard, none of them about philosophers by the way, are unrepresentative).

If they are really there, in residence, on campus, 4 weeks of the year, that probably justifies paying them (from the point of view of the enhancement of the quality of the intellectual life of the institution — maybe less so if they are all there for the same 4 weeks!). Whether it justifies putting them in the REF other than as a kind of gaming seems less likely to me.


Charles H. Pooter 12.19.14 at 12:11 am

A 50% adjunct at a US university, I was hired to a 50% position by a major UK university until I resigned out of shame. The position was a useful one, as it allowed me to apply for UK grants–and in that way, I hope, offset some of my costs. But what revealed the set up as a fraud was that my regular conscience-driven offers to do something–anything– to earn my salary (other than contribute my CV for the (then) RAE) were taken as somehow discomfiting to the home department and, when not dismissed with incredulity, simply ignored.


New UK Prof 12.19.14 at 12:34 am

CHP (nice pseudonym, by the way),

Let me get this straight: you were a 50% adjunct at a US university, but your publications were so world-leading that a “major UK university” was willing to pay you a half-salary simply to lend your CV to the institution — no teaching, no admin, no outreach, nothing? With respect, I think we have to dismiss that claim with incredulity.


Charles H. Pooter 12.19.14 at 1:41 am

@New UK Prof. I can understand why you might dismiss it. I was incredulous myself. I certainly didn’t (and don’t) think of my publications as “world-leading”. But yes, back in the days of the RAE, I was hired and was paid and did very little. Because I prefer to protect some of the people involved and don’t want to engage with others, I, like yourself, use a pseudonym and must leave it to readers to believe or not. “New” profs, I suspect, may find it harder to believe than old ones.


New UK Prof 12.19.14 at 1:46 am


I’m happy to take your word for it. It’s just hard to believe given the current educational environment in the UK. I have a chair at a top-10 law school, and I have significant teaching responsibilities (though no more onerous than when I taught in the US and Australia; a bit less in fact) and a number of administrative responsibilities. I want what you had!


SusanC 12.19.14 at 7:56 pm

For sure, there’s a massive amount of system gaming with the REF, and there has been for years.

On the other hand, an arrangement where a US academic comes over for 4 weeks during the summer (when they’re not needed for teaching at their home institution) and does some collaborative work could be legit. I can think of some examples that are genuine collaborative projects, not just system gaming. You’ld need to look more closely at the details of specific instances. (e.g. Do the papers that the US academic is submitting for the UK institution’s REF have any coauthors from the UK institution?)


clew 12.19.14 at 8:56 pm

Is there a political or organizational science term for figuring out the minimum that needs to be done to coopt the minimum of powerful people into a scheme?


Meredith 12.20.14 at 6:36 am

Death to academia by busino-bureaucrats. (Time to revive Weber?) Somehow Britain and Europe have escaped the maul of American thinking on healthcare but have succumbed to it in academia? Happening here, too (though since when were US Americans subtle where Brits were crass?). Glad my children did NOT go into academia.


Chris Bertram 12.20.14 at 7:55 am

SusanC: I’m fine with such arrangements on academic/scholarly grounds. But that hardly justifies a rule that incentivizes such arrangements as a tool to extract a larger departmental share of public money. Joint-authored papers are fine, but including 4 sole-authored papers (the same number as for a full-time employee) written by people whose main job is at NYU or Harvard? I gather there are some justifications for the 0.2 rule given employment patterns in the clinical sciences. If valid, that would justify some subject-based exceptions, at most.


guthrie 12.20.14 at 7:26 pm

Meredith – the NHS has been treated to repeated rounds of Americanisation over the last decade or two, and now some major US corporations suck money from the taxpayers to do healthcare.

As for:
“I’m also puzzled, given the effects on the disbursement of public money, why no UK university sought to challenge the 0.2 rule in the courts, to seek judicial review, given its perverse consequences.”

As a non-academic but an ex-student of several universities, and also a cynic, the obvious answer is that the managers currently running UK universities don’t think it is worthwhile because either the current setup suits them fine or they know that if they don’t rock the boat they’ve a chance at a nice job somewhere later. (Which is how the british patronage system works)


js. 12.20.14 at 8:01 pm

Most profs there are paid a 9-10 month salary

“Most profs” might be on 9-month contracts, but Hartry Field, Kit Fine, et al. are sure as hell not on 9-month contracts. What harry b says seems right to me though.


js. 12.20.14 at 8:09 pm

To clarify: The kinds of professors in the US UK universities would most hope to attract (for 0.2 contracts or whatever) are precisely the kinds of professors least likely to be on 9mo/yr salaries at their US institutions. But that by itself needn’t imply any contractual impropriety, at least at the US end, partly for the reasons that harry b mentions @12.

In any case, the 0.2 rule does seem outrageous.


Meredith 12.21.14 at 5:53 am

Seriously, in the last year or so I’ve spent a good deal of time (off the clock, so to speak) reading (for instance) the minutes of the selectmen of 1600’s Dorchester, MA, and the various (monthly, quarterly, yearly) minutes of (men’s and women’s) Friends meetings in a county in PA. (I never imagined I’d like the Puritans, in their messiness, more than these kind and good and obscenely note-taking Quakers! Hey, the Puritans favored civil marriage; not so, at all, those good Friends. Boy were they micro-managers.) Who reminds me of the Nazis collecting teeth more, Puritans or Friends? All this Research Excellence Framework reminds me most.

At a lovely holiday (well, Christmas, but) party tonight, I talked a good time with a carpenter (misleading — he’s a serious cabinet-maker and successful artisan, small construction-company guy). A lot of talk about solar panels and chairs (lots of talk about chairs: an art!), his brief reverie on anarchy (and then, no I am not an anarchist!) and how his daughter, recently graduated from an elite (originally Quaker!) college has apprenticed herself to a carpenter in his employ.

So, maybe there’s hope. Something happened in the seque from guilds to indenture, indenture to trades, trades to unions (then union quashed)…. Something ran amok.
But an else-learned young woman is now
learning to be a carpenter. maybe there’s hope.

How to tend for one another without becoming micro-managing mini-wannabe gods?

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