It’s the silly season, a time of year when many people are on holiday and usually big news tends to be in short supply other than the the annual excitement over A level grades. (Mind you, not so this year, when there is plenty of horrendous news to occupy the mind coming from Egypt.) Of course much of the world believes academics only work for about half the year anyhow, but for many of us this season is a precious time to regroup, catch up and generally think more deeply in a way the hurried pace of the rest of the year prevents. Additionally, there is the pleasure that a reduction in the email deluge brings, because so many people are away and by and large committees are not meeting. Now that I am not tied to taking breaks during school holidays, I suffer from the fact that the times I am away are much less quiet on the email front (July and/or September), but that is a relatively small price to pay for the locations I visit being moderately peaceful generally with lower numbers of tourists and cheaper prices.
This year, however, whatever the media may care to believe about Oxbridge academics, I have my nose to the grindstone with REF preparations. Having had the summer of 2008 destroyed by sitting on an RAE panel, reading what felt like an interminable number of outputs and attending multiple meetings in a rain-drenched Lake District, I vowed not to participate in another such panel. And I have stuck to that, although I did take part in the REF Pilot exercise in Physics. This was a pretty moderate affair, with only a handful of meetings and limited paperwork to plough through, but it provoked a pretty negative impression of the process. Nevertheless, the downside of not serving on the actual REF panel is that I have the dubious pleasure of being the Chair of my university’s Physics and Astronomy local committee. So, whilst other people gad about, I am fretting about the accuracy of entries for all our outputs and composing the prose to accompany the submission documents covering both ‘Environment’ and ‘Impact’.
One of the more challenging conundrums of the format of this round of submissions is that the statements covering both environment and impact, as well as the actual number of impact case studies required, depend on the number of FTE’s (full time equivalents) submitted. This number is, unfortunately, a moving target – at least in a department as large as mine. People are still being head-hunted to move elsewhere and may need to be removed, we have one or two big names awaiting their visa paperwork being completed, and we will have a new batch of research fellows arriving at the start of the new academic year. We probably know about most of these fellows, but there will always be one or two who turn up unexpectedly due to a failure in communication somewhere along the line. As things stand, we hope we are sitting comfortably mid-band, so that we won’t be surprised into finding we suddenly need to start a new impact case study from scratch. But there’s many a slip….
It is in part for these reason that, unlike the horror stories recently reported from Leicester implying there will be ‘consequences’ for eligible staff not entered into the REF this time around, Cambridge’s Code of Practice says the complete opposite and makes it clear that this will not occur in our University. It is appreciated that if the addition of one more individual tips any department over into requiring a completely new case study, such an addition may make no sense whatsoever. So, the code of practice allows people strategically not to be entered and, in the interests of equity, there is no way this omission could be used as a black mark against any individual. I had understood other universities were also operating in the same way, so it is depressing to hear about the Leicester story (of course, there is always the possibility the reporting is inaccurate or misleading).
Having had my brains focused on the REF for some time I have been wracking my brains for how to write a further light-hearted blogpost on the topic, as I did just before Christmas. To be honest, it is no joke. Nothing I can think of could be regarded as the least bit light-hearted or amusing, as well as true and relevant. This is deadly serious and the work of preparation isn’t amusing either. It is necessary to be meticulous in detail (not always my strong point, but there are others in the department who are far better at that than me) and conscious of the guidelines to make sure every requisite point is appropriately covered. Sitting on the RAE panel last time it was only too obvious that the odd department had slipped up, omitted to mention some important point – student training, awards to Early Career Researchers or availability of technical support, that sort of thing which could so easily get overlooked in the grand scheme of things – and so were docked a metaphorical mark or two. As with examinations, answering the question as posed is all important.
So, no light entertainment for me over the REF, no anecdotes to spill, which might either give away too much or be meaningless and certainly no peace over the vacation. Instead, this is simply heavyweight, worrying stuff. The time commitment of many members of staff is very substantial, the associated cost of this time (of those of us who prepare the documents, of those in the University who vet them and of those on the panels who have to pore over them) doesn’t bear thinking about. No longer a light touch exercise, as it was in its initial manifestation in the 1990’s. Like so much in our society it seems to get more burdensome each time (see this recent account of what drove a new maths teacher out of the profession, where there is ever more paperwork required to satisfy accountability box ticking). Is it still serving any useful purpose? It’s hard to be convinced of that. I suspect that all this time and effort merely means we will end up with answers that could have been predicted with reasonable accuracy anyhow. Time will tell, but nevertheless I know how awful I will end up feeling if any sloppiness on my part ultimately turns out to have let the side down in my own neck of the woods.