Killing me softly with your REF

If you work in an UK university you probably know about the REF (understatement). If you don’t, then you might be forgiven for thinking that it is an American black comedy from the 1990s (known in some countries as Hostile hostages). Although the film’s poster is strangely appropriate, that’s not it. Here is the official definition:  The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the new system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions.” (http://www.ref.ac.uk, 18 Dec 2014).

I just discovered an article which apparently made quite a splash when it was first published in 2012. I agree with many of the criticisms in the first half of the text. The best point of the article is about the ambiguous nature of the REF. It chimes with something I’ve been trying to argue in conversations with British academics: namely, that the REF does at least have a good reason behind it, and in other countries where there exists tenure, but little or no accountability, professors can sometimes slack off and lie on their laurels instead of doing research, and that is bad for the careers of younger aspiring academics:

“This ambiguity, of processes which are managerialist, anti-collective, even oppressive, and at the same time potentially progressive, pervades both the REF, and academics’ engagements with it.  The whole evaluation of submissions is by panels of disciplinary peers,  resulting from the collective, if tacit, understanding that it is better done like this than any other way”

It turns out that things weren’t so different in the UK, only happened earlier. I hadn’t realised that the turn to Human Resource Management was initially brought about by well-meaning people who wanted to change old inefficient practices:

. […] Along with customer satisfaction surveys for lectures, an individualized, a per capita REF enables (it seems) the atomization of universities’ intellectual endeavour, and, the performance of each faculty member to be exposed, measured and judged, on its own terms, and against that of others. This is helped by the techniques of human resource management (HRM) – probationary periods, target setting, annual performance appraisals,  and performance related pay. HRM is also associated with disciplining, by both its proponents, and its Foucauldian critics. But against those who see mutual cause and effect in the simultaneous rise of HRM and Thatcherism, I counterpose my anecdotal experience of its practices being developed and realized in public sector by the political left.  When I worked for Leeds City Council in the 1980s, advocates of what now are seen as everyday HRM tools –  job descriptions, person specifications, annual appraisal – presented them as objective methods to counter racism and sexism. It was the stroppy, brave people from councils’ and health authorities’ equal opportunities units who drove the HRM movement, as much as it was privatising, union-busting right-to-managers.  When I left Leeds for my first proper HRM job at British Telecom in London, I found most of my colleagues developing its new entrepreneurial culture had a similar public sector background.”

The article also goes off on a very long rant about the forced disclosure of exceptional circumstances in the second half, which I don’t like as much. But it is very worth reading:
http://www.criticalfaculties.org/kill-the-ref-in-complex-circumstances/

P.S. if you want a serious sociological critique of performance-based appraisal systems, check out Lisa Lucas’ 2006 book “The research game in academic life”. (It is based on her PhD thesis which, I was surprised to learn, was written at the department of sociology at Warwick!)

Or read these slides (I wish I knew who their author is!) which give a nice summary of Lucas’ book, as well as a useful bibliography.

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