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“The governor view” – REF 2021

Most universities had something to celebrate on REF (Research Excellence Framework) 2021 results day, whether it was a healthy proportion of world-beating research, excellence in particular subject areas or strong impact scores.

Nationally, 84 per cent of the research submitted by a total of 157 universities was judged as world-leading (4*) or internationally excellent (3*).  At least 15 per cent of research was considered world-leading (4*) in three-quarters of the UK’s universities.

From a governance perspective, a main preoccupation is the link between research quality and reputation which impacts on student numbers, particularly international students, and on the ability to establish a “virtuous circle”, where a strong research record leads to more successful bids and increased funding.

While the REF generates individual good news stories on results day, when it comes to the various university performance tables, results are relative and winners and losers are inevitable.

“The results ends up being fed into league tables and count a lot for prestige,” said the governor at a Russell Group university.  “A good REF score doesn’t only mean you get more money from Research England, it also means it is easier to get private and third sector money. If you have high prestige, it’s easier to get international students. It’s not just the funding formula that matters, it is also your raw performance and how that is interpreted internationally and in league tables.”

The governor of a new university in the south of England agrees. He suggests that his institution’s strong REF submissions, which made the most of the new requirement to include all staff with a significant responsibility for research, could help boost its league table position which has suffered recently because of employment outcomes criteria.

“We went in very strongly to the REF this year; the university put a lot of effort and expectation into it. To some extent I think that is because we wanted to be regarded as a properly comprehensive university,” he said. “We trusted in the executive to get it right and they did get it right. We did very well. Reputationally, it is important.”

The requirement to demonstrate the impact of research is now an accepted element of the REF. Speaking at a HEPI webinar hours after the results were published, David Sweeney, head of Research England said he had “just come from the treasury” where “impact is seen as an important activity”.

Impact case studies are also a way of making the case for research to the wider public and can help to emphasise to governors themselves, who may not have expertise in R&D, the importance of an institutions research base. One governor pointed out that some colleagues on the governing body “don’t really know what is going on in that space”. 

North of the border, where 84.6 per cent of research was judged to be 4* and 3*, a governor points to the importance of the link between research quality and perceptions of prestige when it comes to attracting the best staff.

He described his institution’s REF results as “a little disappointing”, as recent investment in research posts, after a period where numbers of researchers were reduced, had not yet had time to feed into scores. 

“Good staff are not going to stay at an institution which is not seen as a prestigious place to be associated with,” he said. “Sinking in the rankings is one of our concerns here because good staff will say ‘right goodbye I’m off to the university down the road’. Their skills are very transportable.”

Governing bodies elsewhere across Scotland are also likely to be discussing the allocations of the Research Excellence Grant by the Scottish Funding Council, which were published days after the results.  Although the overall revenue budget for universities is being increased by 2 per cent to just over £1.1 billion, a number of institutions face grant reductions.

Decisions on funding allocations from Research England and Higher Education Funding Council for Wales will be announced in due course. David Sweeney has suggested that the funding distribution formula for Mainstream Quality-Related Research Funding (QR) will not change significantly from that used following the 2014 REF.

A governor at one post-1992 university questioned whether the effort and resources expended by modern institutions will be worth it in funding terms.

“I think it’s increasingly difficult for those who are responsible for funding to maintain the policy that has always been in place of ensuring that world leading research universities maintain their advantage – the raison d’etre for the REF in the first place,” he said. “I’m assuming that remains a major concern of the funding bodies, which means they’ve got to find ways of maintaining the funding for the likes of Imperial, UCL and Oxford despite the others improving their research scores.”

He predicts that as world leading universities remain the main consideration, other institutions that have done well will be disappointed.

“We’ve improved significantly, but will the resources follow to enable us to maintain and accelerate this improvement and take forward the government’s levelling up agenda?,” he asks.

The governor of a northern university points to the identification of pockets of excellence in the REF21 results in the north east. Having played by the new rules and reaped the rewards in terms of research quality success, it will be important for the validity of the exercise, and for levelling up, to see this reflected in funding distribution, he said.

However, even if funding is boosted outside the research “golden triangle”, the tendency in the past is for it to be focused on research intensive universities in cities. The extent to which left-behind towns and rural and coastal areas will see real benefit from this investment is yet to be seen.  

Much will hinge on whether the Government can grow R&D investment to reach its target of 2.4% of GDP by 2027. Given the current economic crisis, this could be a challenge, although in March, a £39.8bn research and development budget for 2022-25 was confirmed by ministers – the largest ever UK budget.

As one governor put it: “The REF happens every seven years. We haven’t the faintest ideas what the size of the research budget will be in seven years time. We don’t know who will be in Government. There could be two elections before then.”

Another area of concern is the UK’s status in relation to Horizon Europe: the UK is yet to be formally associated to what is the largest research and innovation funding programme in the world.

The delay is damaging to the whole of Europe, as well as to UK universities specifically, said governors.

“Horizon Europe is still a worry and it will go on being a worry,” said one. “Universities are very clear they want to be associated with EU but it’s not guaranteed to happen; they were very clear that they wanted to be part of Erasmus and that didn’t happen. But it is not only us that loses out, it’s the quality of science and research across the whole EU. If they can no longer bid with the country that is arguably the best at research in Europe, then everybody loses out.”

One governor cites a recent report in the FT that well respected academics who were heading up EU programmes have been told they can no longer lead projects because of doubts about UK participation in Horizon Europe.

Tim Bradshaw, the chief executive of the Russell Group, warned recently that the window for the UK to associate to the Horizon Europe research programme is “closing fast” and an agreement could be “snatched away before the summer”.

If a formal association with Horizon Europe does not materialise, there is another set of questions around what the UK replacement will look like, whether it will be sufficiently generous and just how will it work.

In this climate of uncertainty, universities are actively pursuing diverse sources of research investment. Overseas investment in UK Research and Development (R&D) is significant and continues to grow, accounting for nearly 20 per cent of all R&D funding in the UK in 2019. But in recent times, some of these sources have come under increased scrutiny, particularly investment linked to the Chinese government and more recently Russia, following the war in Ukraine. The reputational risk that these associations can pose is a growing concern. This has been heightened by the National Security and Investment Act (2021) which came into force in January. It draws attention to the intersection of national security and university research and introduces a requirement to notify the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy about investments that could have national security implications.

This new regulatory regime – which is yet to be tried and tested - could mean governing bodies are party to more discussion on such issues. Specific guidance for universities has been produced by the government. UUK and HEPI have also published information on managing risk.

Pressure is also growing on universities not only to divest from fossil fuel industries but to reject research funding from such sources. A recent open letter from academics to the sector said accepting investments from fossil fuel companies to conduct climate research was “greenwashing” that could “taint” essential research and “compromise” academic freedom.

For some universities, claims of a “conflict of interest” are problematic: “An enormous amount of funding comes from hydrocarbon-associated companies so that is an issue,” said one governor. “Many of the energy companies are leading the way in pursuing and researching renewable and more sustainable approaches.”

These tensions along with issues around research funding and reputation more generally are increasingly likely to occupy the time of university leadership and governance bodies.

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