Reform #3 – The abolition of the Research Excellence Framework and the National Student Survey

The REF and the NSS turn education and research into a numbers game, serving no purpose but to create markets within and between universities. These measurements should be abolished, and alternative mechanisms devised that hold teaching accountable to students and research accountable to society – not the market.

The ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (REF) and the ‘National Student Survey’ (NSS) are two quantitative measurement mechanisms applied to all university research and teaching across the UK. Their purpose is to assess, measure and quantify teaching and research. Although the exact framework is currently unclear, the REF wil almost certainly operate on the basis of grading the research ‘quality’ of an individual department and thus University according to a sample of four journal articles per academic, with premium grades awarded to articles that are published in the ‘top-ranked’ journals. The NSS meanwhile assesses universities according to student ‘satisfaction’ with the university experience. It is these two measurement mechanisms which allow universities to make otherwise arbitrary claims to be a ‘top ten research university’ and to stake out management goals of ‘becoming a top 50 university worldwide’.

As a result of these two quantitative assessments, we are theoretically able to compare universities based on the quality of their research and teaching. This ability to directly compare the ‘performance’ of universities is fundamental in facilitating market competition between universities, as will become ever-more evident with the ever increasing rise in the ‘cap’ on tuition fees. After all, how could one university justify charging more than another unless it could ‘objectively prove’ its superiority through a system of direct comparison? Furthermore, this competition theoretically leads to an improvement in standards across the board, as academics are forced to work harder and teach better so as to work their way up the league rankings, which in turn leads to greater funding and attracting larger student numbers.

In reality, rather than guaranteeing or improving the ‘quality’ of universities, these quantitative assessments lead to a short-circuiting, as research and teaching becomes geared towards the generation and massaging of ‘representations’ rather than towards the research or teaching itself. It matters less and less how well you teach or what you research, only that you are able to meet-or-beat your performance indicators. Managers increasingly bully researchers into abandoning any research that isn’t guaranteed to provide a short-term influx of REF-able papers; academics are coerced into publishing three or four vacuous papers instead of one meaningful contribution; teaching becomes watered down, exams become easier, and marking becomes ‘favourable’ because better marks lead to happier students. The degree itself becomes nothing but a ‘representation’ of intellectual advancement, nothing but a brand stamped onto you as you leave the sausage factory. Meanwhile academics are becoming nothing but well-trained circus monkeys, increasingly more skilled at dancing to the inane tune of their ring-leaders.

Whilst these two measurement systems are central to the abstraction and qualitative devaluation of research and teaching, a series of other ‘metric’ systems are being introduced that will have similar effects. Undoubtedly the most pernicious of these is the creation of the ‘employability factor’ for specific modules or degrees, which is nothing short of tailoring education directly to the demands of corporations. In a jaw-droppingly audacious sleight of hand, employers will be able to directly train and produce their future employees, and then get the employee to pick up the cost and expect them to be grateful for it! Are we really so blind that we will fall for this?

As if the imposition of these mechanisms isn’t degrading enough, their administration demands an huge quantity of resources. Teaching and research are activities which by their very nature are resistant to quantification, necessitating an expensive and unwieldy bureaucracy to impose these meaningless mechanisms. The REF’s predecessor, the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), cost between £30-£37 million to administer for the 1996 report, and the costs have risen year on year. Abolishing these market mechanisms would not only reduce unnecessary spending on universities and strip away inane bureaucracy, it would liberate research and teaching from the fetters of vacuous competition.

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