Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Twenty five years of the REF and me.

Over on Twitter there has been a recent series of posts on the #REF, and a lot of contention about its use and its worth; and its impact on the humanities in particular. For an excellent summary see Ian Pace's blog The RAE and REF: Resources and Critiques. The raw emotion felt in response to the ill-treatment of many at the hands of RAE/REF managers is fully on display - and makes for harrowing reading.  The pressures on ECRs are very real and the REF leads many academic department heads and research administrators to make stupid, and inhumane decisions.  My own experience of the RAE and REF, however, is different, and as 240 characters won’t allow me the space to reflect how it has shaped my career - I have posted here instead.

I received my doctorate in 1985, via a system that seemed predicated on a belief that supervision was just one option, human contact a luxury, and emotions superfluous.  The five years spent as a doctoral student remain a low-point in my life.  Entirely unsuccessful in my attempts to find a job or secure a post-doctoral fellowship, I spent the next four years supporting myself doing a mixture of working building sites, casual teaching (mainly for US 'study abroad' programmes) and research for publishers.  As an institution uniquely open to the un-employed, the IHR tea-room became my only academic point of contact.  By 1989, I had essenitally given up any academic ambitions, when I was appointed as a lecturer in 'eighteenth-century social and economic history and humanities computing' at the Polytechnic of North London.   It felt miraculous at the time.  As far as I can remember this was the first permanent post to come up in the UK in my field of 18th century social history in four years, and I suspect I was appointed not for my historical expertise, but because I could cover both halves of the job description.

A few years later PNL became the University of North London, and I was charged with running the department of history.  The first RAE the 'new' universities could participate in came soon after, in 1992. No one else in the department thought it was worthwhile putting in a submission and there was no mechanism for organising such a thing, so I pretty much wrote it myself. The department at the time was a stunning place to teach (my best work experience in a 30-year career), but there was no research funding.  The annual research budget ran to some £2,500 between some 45 humanities staff.  One year there was an actual physical fight outside the committee where that £2,500 was allocated.  My colleagues were nevertheless a remarkable group of historians including people such as Kathy Castle,  John Tosh and Denis Judd. 

In the end, we were awarded a score of '3' - putting us about a third of the way up the list of 'old' university history departments. And with that score came approximately £90k a year in QR (Quality Related) funding for a staff of around 12, for the next four years. This radically transformed the character of the department. This was not all to the good. Arguably the focus on teaching changed and several colleagues whose world view was less grounded in the powerful values of the old poly sector let the funding rather go to their heads.  But the result of that RAE, and the redistribution of funding that followed, very much demonstrated that there was excellent research being produced throughout the sector.  I have always believed that the RAE was introduced under Thatcher as a way of disciplining the 'old' universities, and that the 1992 inclusion of the 'new' universities, was a part of the same strategy.  It worked.  Everyone substantially raised their game in the 1990s - or at least became more focussed on research and publication.  This was also a period during which student numbers were rapidly expanding, drawing in both money and new staff (following 10 years of decline and retrenchment).  My generation of historians for the most part doesn't exist.  Some made a career in the US, but most of my fellow doctoral students were forced to take jobs outside of the academy, and when expansion came in the early 90s, there was a new, younger generation keen to apply.  But following the 1992 RAE, my strongest emotion was a sense of self-righteous smugness - a belief that the purpose and drive that I found in my small department had been recognised, and the remarkable talents of its staff rewarded.

That success was largely repeated in 1996 -  and following that RAE I moved from the University of North London (later London Metropolitan University), to a 'Readership' at the University of Hertfordshire.  I was recruited as part of an RAE driven strategy following the poor showing of  Hertfordshire's very strong history department in the previous year's exercise.  Hertfordshire had failed to showcase the work of its recent appointments in its 1996 submission.   It was a bitter-sweet move for me - and I remain ambivalent about it.  But while North London did not seem to want to plan for the next RAE, Hertfordshire was actively strategising.  Over the next two rounds I was again tasked with writing a department's submission, and Hertfordshire's history department's score rose from a '2' to a '5*'.  In 2008 I also oversaw some seven submissions in my then role as director of the SSAHRI (Social Science, Arts and Humanities Research Institute) at Hertfordshire. In both these rounds, the 'new' universities seemed to make real progress; and the ridiculous hierarchies of the sector seemed to be gradually dissolving.  There was a recognition that even if the 'excellence' in the 'new' universities formed only 'pockets' they were nevertheless worth acknowledging and funding.  When, in 2001, the history department at Oxford Brookes received a 5* while Oxford University's history department was rated 5, it seemed as if anything was possible.  

For successful departments in my part of the sector, the RAE also gave new authority to academic staff.  Keeping staff, recruiting new staff, and providing a context in which academics could fulfil the requirements of the RAE became ever more important.  The number of staff promoted to 'Professor' expanded dramatically, and while salary scales did not move much, the distribution of posts between 'Professor', 'Reader', 'Senior Lecturer' and 'Lecturer' changed out of all recognition.  Where departments had traditionally had just one 'Professor', and while 'Senior Lecturer' was the height of most academic's ambition; promotions now came thick and fast.  In the process the amount of money spent on staff salaries increased significantly.   Along the way there were very difficult decisions to be made.  I personally only ever excluded one eligible person from the RAE, but the interview involved remains a raw memory.  By 2008, with the department I helped to lead riding high in the RAE (well in to the top third of departments), I was convinced that the new dispensation made sense.  A regular RAE, in combination with the greatly expanded funding available through the AHRC from 2004 onwards, created what felt like a largely balanced system of support that appeared to reward hard work and quality research wherever it was found.  Humanities scholars seldom acknowledge that the funding for their reserach via the AHRC increased from £20m to £100m in a single year (2004) at a time when universities themselves where increasingly obliged to give QR funding to the units of assessment that had 'earned' it via the RAE.  This substantially increased funding for the humanities as well.  As a beneficiary of the system, I was - of course - convinced by its fairness.

The advent of the REF and the arrival and changing level of student fees; the lifting of the cap on student numbers, and a powerful fight-back by the elite institutions (the Russell Group substantially upped its game in 2004), changed much of this. 

With the advent of first £3000, and then £9,000 fees, it became clear that government policy was shifting direction.  From supporting 'pockets of excellence' there would in future be a pattern of expansion and support largely driven by the prejudices of parents and employers.  The 'new' universities were being told to get back in their boxes.  At the same time, the inclusion of 'impact case studies' in the 2013 REF sent a strong message that near market and STEM research was likely to be prioritised in future.   

By 2013, and although Hertfordshire put in a stunning REF performance in history (ranked well in the top ten departments nationally and level-pegging with Cambridge), it seemed clear to me that this model of open competition would not be allowed to continue; or that hurdles were being built in to the system that would rapidly undermine the progress of the previous twenty years.  It was largely in despair at the direction of policy, that I took a post at the University of Sussex - as the least worst compromise I could come up with.  Again, this was a move made in response to a REF strategy.  In this instance it rapidly became clear that the relevant strategy existed primarily in the minds of the VC and head of school, and had not been agreed by my new colleagues - but there was a strategy.

After 25 years in the now not so 'new' universities, during which the RAE and REF seemed to form the basis for real opportunity and positive change - and the basis for grounded, long-term planning, I have since found myself in an 'old' university, where the REF feels more a threat than a promise.  Most of my colleagues would prefer the REF did not exist, and that research funding was simply allocated to them by dint of having secured a job at a 'good' University.  Having won the race to the finishing line they would prefer not to be obliged to compete further.   In my new 'old' university REF strategies are also closely monitored from the centre - and there are few opportunities to use the process in pursuit of coherent academic planning at departmental level.

For myself, I look back on this journey with mixed emotions.  The bureaucracy, the games playing and the constantly changing requirements of each new RAE/REF, served a series of British governments as a means of manipulating the university system.  First, it disciplined the 'old' universities, forcing them to take more seriously both research and public engagement - holding them to account for the public money they received.  And then, it hung the 'new' universities out to dry, by shifting the goal posts and ensuring that the system would be increasingly rigged in support of the 'old' ones.  In many ways, government - from Thatcher to Cameron and May -  played a community against itself - ensuring that all those academics who pretended to be part of a supportive community of scholarship would spend their time fighting madly to beggar their neighbour.  

But at the same time, I look to the promise of greater diversity offered by those early RAE's and cannot but think they must be at least a part of the solution.  The desire to get rid of the RAE is largely a cry to 'leave us alone'; and it is heard most loudly in the most privileged corridors of the academy.  And yet, when you look at the staff involved, if you measure their ethnic, class and cultural diversity, what rapidly emerges is a defence of the most selective process imaginable.  Most staff in the humanities in the 'old' universities (and the new) are white and middle class (myself included).  A substantial proportion come from 'academic' homes; and were given privileged access to an elite education by dint of their parent's social and academic capital.  If simply getting a 'job' frees you from ever demonstrating the significance of your work; and if all those people who did not get a job in the right corner of the academy are excluded from demonstrating the worth of their own labours, we simply re-enforce hierarchies of privilege to the detriment of the system.  Clear benchmarks, and transparent processes seem to me a better antidote to privilege than a strategy based on 'leaving us alone'.

ECRs have been dealt a rough hand.  The process of selection has been changed without anyone ever spelling out why or how.  The only explicit discussion of this I ever heard was at the AHRC, where the identification of the 'leaders of tomorrow' became an increasing pre-occupation from around 2010 as part of an emerging policy of concentrating research funding on an ever dwindling set of departments and research 'leaders'.  The path to secure academic employment is now predicated on a first class degree from the 'right'  university (read Oxbridge), followed by a funded doctorate at the 'right' university (read Oxbridge), followed by a post-doc (maybe London for varieties' sake), a book of the thesis, two articles, and success in the AHRC's 'New Generation Thinkers' competition.  And woe-betide anyone who fails to collect any one of these shiny tokens of achievement.  The effect is to raise the bar for secure employment while not being honest with the scholars who are in fact being judged and discarded at each stage.  The language of precarity actually hides an ongoing process of brutal selection.  This is a form of selection that re-enforces privilege and excludes scholars who have not travelled on this most banal, lock-step journey. To be caught in this system is very hard, but the REF is not the real issue. 

As I approach retirement I have become increasingly uncomfortable with higher education.  I look back and think with Malcom Chase that I would choose a different path if I was able to start over.  Higher education feels ever more akin to a factory for the reproduction of class and ethnic privilege - the pathways from exclusion to success ever more narrowly policed. Ironically it is not the 'neo-liberal' university that is the problem; but the 'neo-liberal' university dedicated to reproducing an inherited hierarchy of privileged access that uses managerialism and rigged competition to reproduce inequality.  To my mind, the REF was a game changing opportunity, and could be again.


4 comments:

Debbie Cameron said...

Interesting piece--to me at least, because my own career trajectory is quite similar to yours (started out in a non-university with no research funding stream in 1983, went to the US briefly, came back to work in a non-elite Scottish uni just before the 1992 RAE, did a spell as a HoD, eventually moved to an elite old uni) but my opinion of the exercise is quite different and has been right from the start. The trouble with the thesis about it, or the early forms of it, rewarding excellence and hard work wherever they were found (which I think a lot of our contemporaries believed) is that the judgments panels made were always opaque, unaccountable and (to my mind) in many cases capricious. I never had and still do not have any faith that the ratings are fair or that they represent any consistent, meaningful definition of 'excellence'. I thought even in 1990 that the exercise was mainly about resource rationing and managerial control. By introducing competition and gamespersonship at every level (institutional to individual) I would say it has done far more damage than good. Like you I was individually a beneficiary of it (I got jobs and promotions because of my publications), but nevertheless I agree with the younger people who are now criticising it as oppressive, and who in some cases are angry that our generation didn't oppose it before it became entrenched.

Tim Hitchcock said...

Dear Debbie, thanks for your engagement. I agree that the system was designed to serve as a tool of managerial manipulation; and certainly believe its current iteration is designed to deliver on a series of ends with which I strongly disagree - the closing down of the innovations and aspirations of the 'new' university sector. And I quite see why ECRs see it as just one more component of a system creating impossible demands. My difficulty is with the alternative. Any lectureship in my field will garner between 100 and 200 applications - almost all of these candidates will be essentially appointable. This demand is being used to generate an ever narrower set of criteria that has little to do with publications and the REF (ECR commentators wont see this, but fifty interview panels of experience tells me so), and much to with the reproduction of privileges of class and race. In the absence of an open system of assessment by communities of scholars, we will cede the choice of the next generation of academics to the interviewers at some Oxbridge college or other. Creating pathways into the academy from different points of origin is vital, and continuing forms of assessment seem one way to move in this direction. If you know precisely what standards are expected, anyone can strive to meet them, but if the nature of the judgement being made is hidden (or reverse engineered to some point in the distant past), non-standard entrants are left directionless. I would much prefer assessment to be in public and published at the level of the individual scholar, rather than departments or institutions.

The current system is clearly inadequate, but we need to be honest about the selection process a career in the academy implies; and to design a system that makes for positive change. As I said above, the calls for the abolition of the REF come overwhelmingly from the most privileged corridors of the academy - and they come from there, for an obvious reason.

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