Working with the REF
Earlier this year I received news that I have been appointed to the Main Panel D of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) Research Excellence Framework. This, one of four main panels, is the group that will oversee the assessment of research quality in universities in those subjects that are broadly classed as arts and humanities. Most of the other members of the main panel are chairs of the sub panels that will assess output in particular subjects: Area Studies; Modern Languages; English Language and Literature; History; Classics; Philosophy; Theology and Religious Studies; Art and Design; Music, Drama, Dance and the Performing Arts; and Communication, Cultural and Media Studies, Library and Information Management. Behind these overarching terms lie limitless complexities of research in disciplines that often overlap with each other and equally, present the widest possible differences of approach. Determining how to ensure a consistent and fair method of assessment across all of these subjects is the intricate and also herculean task assigned to main Panel D.
The REF succeeds the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) which has guided the allocation of research funding to the universities since the 1980s. While most of us who work in higher education in the UK are now used to these periodic reviews, the move from RAE to REF rasies some new concerns. Most of all, the mandate to assess the impact of academic research on society and the communities we serve, including international impact, is a new feature. To be charged by government with defining why our work matters in the world at large is both daunting and exhilarating. There is no point in being vexed by the question. The principle of accountability for our work, publicly funded as it is, has become enshrined in our expectations and value systems. Well accustomed to producing and assessing quality, we now have an opportunity not just to define what is meant by quality, but to demonstrate the value of high quality humanities and arts research in a rigorous way.
My personal role in these deliberations is unexpected, a privilege and a challenge. It is intellectually exciting to be in the company of leading practitioners in all of these different fields. I have been appointed as an “additional member” to represent the users of research and the international academic community. As our work progresses, it will be the task of the additional members to ask awkward questions and pose points of view that for one reason or another, do not arise naturally from the intradisciplinary discussions of the subject-based panels. It will emphatically not be our task to support assessments of a mechanistic or purely quantitative kind. From my first meeting I feel confident that all of us will be working within a framework that fundamentally respects the way academic researchers in each of the different subjects at hand approach their work. But a natural scepticism on the part of most academics will question that proposition. Explaining ourselves to our many thousands of colleagues in the universities and then helping them to explain their value to government and the world at large: that is going to be an interesting task.
The pace of my life in Oxford continues to be hectic. Perhaps it is the extraordinary round of hospitality that greets a new head of an Oxford college, combined with the hospitality that the college itself gives out, or perhaps it is my programme of meetings with individual students, almost all the nearly 500 members of our student body, but I am not finding much time to pause for reflection. It’s all part of the fun to get to know the students, and to meet so many devoted and generous Somervillians, as I have been doing at gatherings in Oxford and London hosted by alumni, and also singly over lunch or dinner. Our former treasurer Jane Hands came in to lunch recently and brought with her a photograph of her part-owned steeplechaser, Absolution. Absolution, a five-year old, is due to run in the Cheltenham Gold Cup one of these days and if he wins, Jane’s share of the payout will come to Somerville. Now I am not a betting person, nor is it for me to encourage vice in others, but still….a flutter on the Gold Cup when Absolution runs would be positively dutiful.