REF2021: How prepared is the sector?

In December last year, we ran a short survey in conjunction with the Carnegie School of Education at Leeds Beckett University where we asked the sector how prepared it felt for REF 2021. We know that the refining of REF guidelines and the emergence of the Teaching Excellence Framework, and potential for a Knowledge Exchange Framework, is placing increased pressures on universities and academics as they strive to undertake high quality research. Ongoing internal challenges around competing priorities and the effective use of resources highlights the need for institutions to understand exactly where pressure points may exist and how best they can prepare staff and the university for the REF.

Although the sector has been aware of the next REF for some time, all but one of the institutions felt that they were somewhat unprepared for the upcoming exercise. In addition, there was widespread agreement that others in the sector were more prepared than they were. This may reflect a sector wide lack of confidence in preparations, even with most of the key REF guidelines having been released.

Despite the lack of confidence and feeling of under preparedness, all universities have a range of support services in place to help their researchers gain the skills needed to deliver high quality research. All universities provide grant writing training and support alongside research days which offer professional development opportunities as well as showcasing the best research taking place. The picture in regard to impact training and support and researcher mentoring is patchier, with a number of areas, including systems to monitor and record impact as well as academic writing, support barely featuring in the responses. Even with this support in place, several challenges and barriers were highlighted.

University wide leadership including clear messaging, support for research and allocation of resources centrally was seen as critical to achieving success. This included ensuring that ‘time was given to staff to do research’ and ‘funding is made available’. Coupled with this, and reflected across the whole survey, was the pressure of high teaching workloads which reduced the capacity of academics to undertake any research at all. This was particularly prevalent in smaller or specialist institutions who may have less research active staff or a smaller cohort of academics with PhDs.

Some parts of the sector, those with particularly heavy teaching loads or which may be described as teaching lead institutions, are still working to increase the profile of research internally. To do this they have highlighted some key actions that will help them achieve strong results. An overarching concern, linked to leadership above, is the need to ‘articulate research excellence as a core value’. In addition, appointing new staff with doctorates and ideally an emerging track record in research in their field is considered critical. This can then support the creation of a ‘vibrant PhD community’ which supports the REF environment case. The appointment of senior posts within schools and faculties with an explicit research focus would also help.

The survey also highlighted what many referred to as a need to develop a research culture. The ability to positively grow a research culture can be hampered by a poor understanding of the research skills needs that academics have. Assumptions are often made about the skills and knowledge of academics post PhD, but recent research led by Professor John Sharp has demonstrated that often research skills are poorly developed with researchers lacking the confidence to undertake what are often considered day to day research tasks. Strong and clear leadership can help with messaging and this, coupled with research support training, can go some way to addressing and growing a research culture and confidence. At Cloud Chamber we have worked with Professor Sharp to offer a range of support including short training sessions on grant writing, academic reading and writing for doctoral students and writing for publication for research staff. In addition, Professor Sharp has developed an audit tool that can help institutions, faculties or research centres to identify exactly where their research support needs are. To find out more and how we can support your preparations for REF then please contact