Bristol UCU Response – University of Bristol REF2021 Code of Practice

As part of our JCNC response, Bristol UCU would like to raise several points regarding the current Code of Practice (CoP) draft.

1) Submitting Redundant Staff Outputs & Selection of ‘Self-Directed’ Researchers

The proposal by UK funding bodies that universities will be allowed to take credit for the work of academics who they have made redundant has been probably the most controversial REF2021-related announcement. The University has incorporated this principle in the CoP. To quote ‘[o]utputs from former members of staff, including staff who have been made redundant, will be included in our submissions only where their predicted quality exceeds that of outputs from current members of staff’ (p.6).

UCU has called on REF institutions ‘to make it clear publicly that your institution will not be submitting the outputs of former staff who have since been made redundant and that this commitment is explicitly included in your 2021 REF Code of Practice’. UCU does not consider the submission of redundant staff’s work appropriate. This encourages the type of REF ‘gaming’ around staffing decisions that REF2021 was meant to address, and it is also highly unfair to those staff whose reward for contributing to our institutional REF submission is a loss of employment.

The University may argue that it is following the rules and guidance as laid out in the REF Guidance on Submissions, and that this applies to a small number of possibly very senior staff, but it is Bristol UCU’s understanding that other institutions have taken a different approach. Birkbeck, University of London, for example, has committed to submitting former researchers’ work only if they have left for reasons of retirement, voluntary redundancy or moving onto new jobs. Bristol UCU would ask the University to adopt a position similar to that of Birkbeck.

We would also like to question the definition of self-directed research, and the cut-off
point for a self-directed researcher being between Research Fellow (profile c) and Senior Research Fellow (profile d). A Research Associate (RA) would not be submitted unless they are a principal investigator, manage staff or have significant input into the design, conduct and interpretation of research. How does this apply to those RAs who are employed to undertake others’ research but who also produce their own independent self-directed research? For example, the Arts and Humanities Research Council suggests that Principle Investigators allocate time to RAs for them to work on their own publications – are they then not REF-able?

2) EDI & Staff Circumstances

Broadly speaking, Bristol UCU welcomes the EDI focus of the CoP. The Equality Impact Assessment proofing outlined is also to be commended. We would also welcome a recognition, alongside the discussion of a lack of female representation, of similar issues concerning academics of colour, lgbt+, with disabilities and who are first generation academics.

Given the career implications, Bristol UCU asks that there is UCU representation during any appeal or Staff Circumstances Panel process for UCU members. In practice this means any appellant or researcher putting a case to the staff circumstance panel is entitled to be accompanied by a union, most likely UCU, representative.

Bristol UCU welcomes the Staff Circumstances Panel to determine when an individual’s circumstances have had an exceptional effect on their ability to produce an eligible output, and where adjustment or removal from the process is appropriate. We also broadly welcome the stipulated grounds for adjusting or removing expectations, such as equality-related circumstances that, in isolation or taken together, may have affected research productivity during the assessment period

As things stand, the CoP lays no positive duty on Unit of Assessment (UoA) coordinators to take an active role in identifying and supporting research-active individuals who potentially may wish to apply for the exceptional status of not being required to have 1 output ‘tied to them’, or indeed research-active staff who wish to make a case to be considered as Category A staff.

We believe that UoA co-ordinators could be given guidance to encourage staff when
appropriate so that the onus was not solely on the individual concerned to make such
a request or appeal.

3) Performance Management

Bristol UCU has repeatedly raised concerns about REF as regards its application as a form of capability management for those staff deemed to be not contributing to the REF ‘project’.

The CoP is largely silent on what will happen to research staff who are not able to be treated exceptionally because of a Staff Circumstances appeal. With the REF2021 goalposts now shifting away from the consequences of one’s research outputs not being submitted to the consequences of not having one’s research output excepted, we would like some clarity as to what would happen to the staff member concerned.

We welcome the acknowledgement on page 7, as regards one’s overall output, ‘that there may be reasons why individuals publish at different rates and there is no expectation that all eligible staff will contribute equally to the volume of outputs submitted’, and are keen to see this as directive that no staff member is treated detrimentally because of their output volume.

We would also welcome a statement by the University, on behalf perhaps of the University Research Committee and accompanying REF2021-related communication, along the lines of a 2013 email from then DVC Guy Orpen on the University’s REF2014 Policy.

This noted:

[t]he REF is an exercise with important financial and reputational consequences for the University and it is vital that we maximise our potential outcome through an appropriate Submission Policy. However, the Policy does not set our research expectations for staff nor does it of itself act as an indicator of individual performance.

This is an excellent statement and we like to see its reiteration in the current REF2021 cycle. Research, to quote again from the 2013 email, should ‘not be judged through the prism of the REF alone’.

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