Why the REF is bad for academia

This post has been inspired by a dear colleague of mine, who I respect immensely. She recently lost out on a lectureship (she needed to move due to personal reasons) based purely on her lack of ‘referable’ publications, not her lack of potential, or lack of publication plans. I could really empathise with her because this is something I had experienced on more than one occasion; getting told you were faultless on your application, interview and presentation but the job went to a less impressive candidate, because they had some peer review journal articles or had brought in a large funding grant. What was the most frustrating of all was the time wasting – why bother interviewing me, getting my hopes up, when you can clearly see from my application I am not referable? Was my time to prepare and travel to the interview (never mind the angst caused in the process) just to make up the numbers? If it is such a key criteria for offering a lectureship, why are so many early career academics given the hope of getting a job when universities have no intention of offering it to them? This is where the REF (research excellence framework for those less familiar) has to be called into questioning.

Universities are institutions for higher education, education being the key here. Our job as lecturers is to open the minds of our students, educate them in a whole variety of disciplines and vocational courses to enhance their skills and abilities in the hope that they can apply these to whatever their future holds. When an 18 year old applies to their choice of University they do so based on what they will learn and the graduate attributes they will gain. Postgraduate applicant will more likely explore the research profile of staff, particularly PhD applicants, but for undergraduates (the biggest source of student income for Universities), this is not something they are considering. For the majority of undergraduates they don’t even know who the lead researchers in the field are until after they start their courses. There are many reasons student choose their University (location, student life, work placements, modes of study etc.), the REF is not one of those reasons. It can of course be argued that the REF has an indirect influence due to University rankings and the amount of grant money awarded to an institution (that will benefit the infrastructure and resources offered by institutions). However, the biggest factor in choosing a university is the course content (according to the Complete University Guide) – it doesn’t matter how many publications you have, its’s what you can teach that matters.


Many colleagues of mine, past and present, offer excellent courses, not because of their own research but because of their engagement with other people’s research. Knowing your discipline is surely the most important aspect of lecturing. Being able to stand in front of students to educate them on your discipline is your job. I often find the greatest joy in lecturing is when I am teaching topics outside my own research area, you can become trapped in your own specialist bubble during research and writing that you forget about the amazing work undertaken on other topics.For most lecturers you have to teach a variety of modules covering a vast spectrum of the discipline. In Criminology I teach everything from gender, to terrorism, to research methods and punishment, none of which are my research specialisms. This means that part of my job is to keep up to date with relevant research and scholarship in an array of fields outside my own. Just because it isn’t my own research, doesn’t make my teaching any less research informed, so the assumption that active impactful researchers are the ‘best’ for our students is absolute nonsense. Academics who are passionate about what they teach and strive to enlighten their students are the best. I have worked alongside some of the most respected researchers in the field; they have brought in hundreds and thousands of pounds worth of research income, they have a consistently high publication record and have PhD applicants queuing to be supervised by them, and for that I respect them wholly. But, and this is a big but, when it comes to teaching undergraduates many of those respected professors fail to put the same time and effort into their teaching as they do their research. Please do not assume I am tarring all professors and readers with the same brush here, because I am not, I know that there are mighty fine scholars who thrive when they stand in front of their student audiences and love to teach. The argument I am making is that just because someone has a long list of research outputs considered referable, does not mean they will make the best lecturers, yet these are the people securing lecturing jobs over people who are passionate about students.


Now let me come onto why I think the REF is bad for scholarship. Whether you work in universities that push for publications or work in institutions in the early stages of REF profiles, you will have some experience of the wrath of the REF. There is the expectation that lecturers will publish in peer reviewed journals, the assumption that despite the demands of lecturing, administration,examining, supervising and carrying out research, we also have the capacity to churn out high end journal articles (an even more pressing task for those of us with kids as I discussed in Does Gender Matter?). This puts great pressure on academics, on top of what is already a demanding job, particularly for people for who find writing articles a daunting task. In order to progress, in order to compete with the criminological ego (see my previous post on this here), we open ourselves up to even more rejection and insecurities. Now I can’t speak on behalf of all institutions as each will have their own mechanism to compiling their REF submissions, but where I work we are all asked to produce 5 peer reviewed articles for consideration for the REF. What this means is that we are all expected to work our arses off producing journal articles, but in the end not all of us will be included in the submission, only the best will be included in the submission. So even if we are lucky enough to get our work published after rigorous reviews, we are they faced with the possibility of those publication being deemed not suitable for submission. This only breeds more insecurity, more feelings of failure and more competitiveness amongst colleagues. If anything, working towards the REF is discouraging for staff, it is an enormous amount of pressure, added worries of rejection and, even if you are lucky enough to be included in the submission, your articles may not the receive the star rating that your institution hopes they will, equalling even more disappointment. So what we have are institutions filled with anxious academics (particularly early career academics), frantically trying to write great articles and fearing the consequences if they don’t produce the goods. In the race to publish, colleague relationships become strained, teaching quality is compromised and stress levels are ever increasing. Evidence alone that the REF is bad for academia.

The next aspect of the REF I want to highlight takes us back to the start of this post, judging people on what they have produced not what they potentially will produce. Let me pause for a second, just while I try to show how this problem mirrors one of the biggest criticisms of our criminal justice system. Society too easily judges people who offend on what they have done, their past behaviour and fail to put time and resources into developing their potential to lead a non-offending future. As argued in my last post, we need to invest in our communities to establish fairer, equal and safer societies. I want to argue the same for academia. Just because someone hasn’t produced numerous journal articles doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t, there are numerous reasons why talented academics haven’t published (such as focusing on developing teaching, lack of support and guidance, lack of confidence, time constraints, sick leave, countless rejections, caring responsibilities etc.). It took me 4 years to get my first journal article accepted for publication; taking maternity leave, 2 rejections, working on numerous postdoc projects and a heavy teaching schedule all played a role. It was only because of the faith of a small team of people who saw some potential in me and offered to support my writing that I eventually smiled with the delight of receiving the email stating my article was accepted.

Postdocs and early career researchers have the most incredible potential, they are forward thinking, engaging with the most up to date policies, theories and research methods, they just need a break and a little bit of guidance. Look at me now, I have a publication record, have won several research bids and I’m supervising future criminologists. The pressure of the REF means that University departments are employing people on what the have done and making judgements based on someone’s past, not their future. Just because someone has published successfully in the past doesn’t mean they will continue this path, just because they have 2 articles ready for submission to the REF doesn’t mean we should automatically assume they will have another 2 or 3 ready in time. In interviews we don’t ask people about their turnaround times for journals, we just look at a CV, see they have publications and put them top of the candidate list. In addition, there’s nothing to say that those articles are any good, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has read a lot of mince published in some high end journals, with questionable methodologies, unsupported findings and weak theoretical arguments. I meet so many potentially great academics leaving to work in other sectors because they have given up trying to get that lucky break, all because of the REF. To have a future of great minds and educators we surely must invest in them just as we, as social scientists, demand investment into our vulnerable populations.

The length of this post probably speaks for itself, the REF is bad for academia; we are compromising the quality of what we teach, academic morale is at an all time low, and we are overlooking potentially fantastic researchers and theorists, all because of the impact of  the REF. If research is becoming just as important as education in Universities then I suggest the structure and roles within Universities need to be changed and particularly go back to the lecturer/researcher divisions. When I first entered higher education we had researchers who worked full time (permanent contracts) and they would do the occasional spot of teaching, meanwhile we had lecturers doing the majority of teaching and dipped in and out of research. Some time ago it was decided that lecturers should do both without much consideration given to student satisfaction, teaching quality and staff morale. If Universities want their staff to research and write, give then time to do it, don’t presume they have the capacity outside of working hours. If we need people to teach then we should encourage more GTA posts and lecturing only positions. As academics, and academic institutions, I think we need to stand up and be heard more and say no to the demands caused by the REF, or at the very least our institutions need to put in much more suitable frameworks for working under such conditions.

This reads as a very bleak post, because it is, I’m sorry! Only time will tell if the TEF (teaching excellence framework) will offer opportunities to move beyond the REF, and if great teaching will start to be recognised, but that my friends is for another post. So I want to end this by dedicating this post to my colleague and friend, your small publication record says nothing about you as a lecturer, researcher or future leader – it is a just the reflection of a system designed to to reinforce the egos of those who have already ‘made it’.


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