The UK Job Market Part II: Research By Numbers, or The REF

By Alice Kelly, Ph.D.

Alice Kelly is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. She completed her PhD in English at Cambridge in 2014, with a year as a Fox Fellow at Yale, and before that she studied at Sussex, Reed College (Portland, Oregon), and Oxford. She has taught English and History in the US and the UK. Having applied for academic jobs on both sides of the pond, she understands the challenges and opportunities of being on the transatlantic academic job market. Alongside her academic research on twentieth century literature and culture, she advocates healthy writing practices. At Oxford she founded the TORCH Academic Writing Group, which she has written about in Times Higher Education.  @DrAliceKelly

See her first post in the series here.

Post Two: Research by Numbers?  The REF

Thinking of applying for an academic job in the UK? You will need to have a sense of the current academic landscape and climate of the UK academy, the different preoccupations of the UK job market, and some idea of where it’s going. For the foreseeable future (i.e. the next three to five years), these boil down to two key things: the REF/TEF (predicted for 2021) and the impact of Brexit. To give you some context:

The REF, or Research Excellence Framework – previously the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) – is a controversial form of assessment that evaluates the level of research excellence – via the research outputs produced – across the disciplines in British higher education institutions. Outputs (plural, in British English) include articles, monographs and book chapters, and the faculty selected to be included in their university’s REF submission submit up to four outputs each. The results are used to allocate research funding in subsequent years, so universities take it very seriously. Research submissions are evaluated by a body of assessors which measure ‘originality, significance and rigor’ with a star system, with the highest ranking being a four-star submission.

A new aspect of the last REF in 2014, and probably the most controversial aspect, was its attempt to assess impact, defined as ‘any effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’ – essentially how scholarly research has an impact on the public, assessed mostly via case studies. This is admirable in theory – who doesn’t want their research to have an impact beyond the ivory tower of academia, right? – but hard to assess in practice and in impartial terms. There are other reasons why the REF is controversial – despite being an exercise in assessing research excellence, scholars are pushed towards quantity, rather than quality, in publication. There’s also been talk of REF ‘gaming’, where universities poach top scholars at the last minute in order to improve their REF submission.

That said, you have to talk the REF talk if you are serious about an academic career in the UK – and show how you are a “REFable” applicant. Like any good researcher, you should google these terms and read up on them (for example, there is a Key Facts document about the 2014 REF here). Following the last REF, the Stern Review (which came out in 2016) gave a number of recommendations for REF 2021, including increasing interdisciplinary and collaborative ventures at the institutional level, and developing the links between research and public engagement. You will therefore need to consider for most (not all) applications across the disciplines how your research can be developed in interdisciplinary ways or could contribute to an interdisciplinary conversation. You will also need to demonstrate that you are a “public-facing” academic, with interest and experience in translating your scholarly research for a broader public audience.

The TEF, or Teaching Excellence Framework, is a new scheme concocted by the current universities minister which – similar to the REF – attempts to measure excellence in undergraduate teaching. The results from this exercise are graded through a bronze, silver or gold award, and these awards may or may not be used in the future to determine whether universities are allowed to raise tuition fees – with fees already being a contentious topic. The first results from this came out in June 2017 (with a number of universities appealing their grade) and the outcomes of this new scheme are not yet clear, but it’s important for you as an applicant to be aware that your teaching may be assessed under this scheme in the future.

Now, on Brexit – the elephant hanging precariously over our continent – don’t get me started. Essentially, we’re not sure, and are not likely to be sure any time soon, of the implications of this decision for the research and knowledge economy in the UK. Some potential consequences are the withdrawal of major European Union funding bodies from collaborative work with UK research councils; a drop in the number of overseas students; and a decreased ability to attract overseas researchers.

I’m sorry to say that we don’t know yet how hard it will be to get a job in the UK as an overseas citizen after Brexit – they’re still negotiating the whole thing. It’s safe to say that we won’t know for a while, so watch this space. (And don’t give up on us, yet!)

To Do: Start reading Times Higher Education and Guardian Higher Education regularly. If it helps, get it delivered to your inbox, but only if you’re going to read the emails and not automatically delete them. What are the latest, more localized preoccupations in the academy? Keep informed on ongoing Brexit discussions and their potential impact on British universities and the academic landscape.

Now you can hold your own in a staffroom with British colleagues and know something of the current shape of the British academy and the different preoccupations of the British job market. Next week we’ll learn how to write a winning cover letter.

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The UK Job Market Part II: Research By Numbers, or The REF — 2 Comments

  1. Further to your comments, academics applying to permanent jobs must be or show potential to be ‘REFable’ by publishing in journals deemed to be 3* or 4* quality (by impact factor or reputation) as proxies for the individual 3* and 4* quality outputs that the REF actually assesses. This informal ranking of journals can vary from field to field, so that a 2* in one counts as a 3* in another, so it would be wise to work out what actually counts for an applicants chosen area or discipline.

    This kind of exercise may mean scholars are now overly targeting small numbers of top journals with solid but nonetheless unsuitable papers and avoiding others deemed to be 2* – because the 3* and 4* papers are effectively now all that count. I’ve also heard of internal peer REF exercises being used for petty interpersonal score-settling, deliberately under or over-rating peers’ work, so it’s probably also a good idea to sniff out the culture or internal of processes of a prospective institution. Is it internally supportive or hostile/competitive when it comes to REF?

    And the TEF may be partly an exercise in buzzword savvy.

    It’s all a bit .

  2. Pingback: The UK Job Market, Part IV: Interviews, British-Style | The Professor Is In

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