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What is REF and is it relevant?

Academia, Siobhán O’Connor

What is REF and is it relevant?

Photo by Dustin Lee ©. Unsplash. Used with permission.

By Siobhán O’Connor

As a doctoral student eager to make the most of my research experience, I am surprised that the Research Excellence Framework (REF) doesn’t really appear anywhere in the process of postgraduate student especially when undertaking a PhD. In the United Kingdom, REF is the process by which research from academic institutions is judged in terms of its quality and impact on society and importantly, it determines how much public money is allocated to higher education institutions that submit their research outputs to REF. The most recent REF results were published in 2014 and the process is currently under review, with the next iteration of REF expected around 2020 (http://www.ref.ac.uk/). REF is conducted by the four agencies responsible for funding higher education, which in Scotland, is the Scottish Funding Council (SFC). Its main aim is to ensure that “public investment in research produces evidence of the benefits of this investment” and it also “provides benchmarking information and establishes reputational yardsticks, for use within the higher education sector and for public information” (REF, 2011).

So why should PhD students bother with REF? Is it relevant to us? Well, I think the answer is most definitely YES!! Critically, REF provides a set of quality standards for research under three headings; 1) Outputs, 2) Impact and 3) Environment, each of which receive a slightly different weighting – 65%, 20% and 15% respectively, although this could change in the future. Expert panels are put together from each discipline to judge submissions from each university under the three headings. Although this process may seem as far from PhD land as possible postgraduate students can learn some valuable lessons from REF.  Understanding the three key elements of the REF assessment can help us to plan, implement and evaluate our work effectively as it examines the key aspects required for high quality research. For example, the quality of ‘Outputs’ under REF is judged by examining the originality, significance and rigour of research papers that are submitted. Next, the ‘Impact’ criterion looks at the reach and significance of research studies in terms of the positive effects they have on the economy, society and/or culture. Finally, the ‘Environment’ standard of REF examines the vitality and sustainability of the research environment that is created and its contribution to the wider academic discipline. All of these elements are critical to any type of research and should form part and parcel of postgraduate students’ life. They should inform our thinking when writing research proposals, designing and conducting our field work, and disseminating our findings in many formats to academic and lay audiences locally, nationally and internationally.

So why is REF never mentioned in PhD land? The answer to this question is one that eludes me but I have some possible theories as to its absence. Firstly, there is the issue of “information overload”. Perhaps universities do not want to burden doctoral students unnecessarily by educating them about REF, as it is a complicated process, which could add additional stress to people who are just starting their postgraduate studies and getting to grips with the complexities of research. Secondly, it could be a “resource” issue. Maybe there isn’t enough money, time and staff available to teach postgraduate students about the ins and outs of REF. Thirdly, I fear that there is an underlying assumption that educating PhD students about REF is a waste of time and energy, as the vast majority will not remain in academia but go into other fields and industries due to the constraints in higher education in terms of the number of permanent jobs that are available.

Regardless of the reasons why REF is missing from PhD land, I do not think it would be a wasted exercise to educate us about research excellence, as this is surely what we are aiming to achieve. So my advice to fellow students is to familiarise yourself with REF, to discuss it with your supervisors and to lobby your postgraduate convener to incorporate some formal or informal training about REF into your postgraduate studies. Not only could it be key to your success, in the short and long-term, but it could also add value to your academic department, institution and ultimately the quality and impact of your research.


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