Yesterday I took part in a REF Impact consultation event in London. This workshop formed part of the broader consultation REF are undertaking with the sector to iron out some of the remaining issues following the ‘final decisions’ announced in November. In attendance were several of the main panel chairs, sub-panel chairs, senior university staff and impact partners (eg. assessors from 2014)
The two key foci of this particular event were additionality (ie. how to accommodate continuing case studies) and expanding the underpinning research base (ie. addressing concerns over limiting case studies to a linear connection between ‘project’ and ‘effect’. Let me start by saying immediately we don’t yet have the decisions about these. The discussions reflected the complexity and implications surrounding these issues and doubtless REF have a huge job on their hands to wrestle with the breadth of feedback and areas of dissent. This won’t be easy and it will have to balance a myriad of considerations.
However, several core messages came through strongly:
- The REF team and main panel chairs were fully in agreement about their commitment to make the assessments fair and rigorous, and with recognition of the challenges/game playing last time.
- There was general consensus that irrespective of whether something is continuing or not, the key question should be does it stand up as a case study in its own right? Fairly ‘spirited’ discussions happened about how to articulate continuing impact, whether it should even be flagged, how it would be assessed etc. Ultimately everyone seemed to settle on simplicity and fairness being the main principles and that a continuing case study (or whatever it should be called) should be measured on its own merits.
- The implications of broadening ‘underpinning research’ to loosen the linear connection between research and impacts and reflect a broader body of accumulate expertise were source of deep discussion. There was real debate around where the lines should be drawn between broader research activities (not just for instance 2* papers) and those which are more engagement in character. Whilst superficially ‘broadening’ conceptually better values the academic lifecourse, it raises significant issues for assessment, judgement, and eligibility of materials for submissions.
- All discussions reflected the broader sector and institutional challenges around impact management, assessment, narrative construction, implications for (eg) progression, incentivising short term vs long term impact and many other issues.
- There is clear recognition that however ‘neat’ the decisions, these sit within a complex ecosystem and must be accompanied with clear guidance and underpinning principles. With institutional stakes high, and submissions so nuanced, text-only communication cannot ‘carry the burden’ of conveying such weighty expectations and must be complemented with broader communication and outreach.
The REF team will be holding several more consultations, and will be synthesising feedback into guidance following this. I don’t envy them at all, but after yesterday I’m convinced there is a real commitment to recognising – if not being able to fully accommodate – voices from the sector.