Recently, I spent an hour sitting in a room with around 30 of my colleagues, where we spent the time writing a 100 word description of one of our research papers, sharing it with colleagues, and working together to improve the description. Next month, we will have another session like this, another 30 person hours of effort spent. Another university with which I am familiar employed a creative writing tutor to come in for the afternoon and facilitate a similar exercise.
Why were we doing this? Because one of the requirements of the Research Excellence Framework (REF)—the national assessment of university research quality—requires the submission of research papers to an evaluation panel, each accompanied by a 100 word summary. Even though the next REF isn’t likely to happen until 2021 at the earliest, we are committing a reasonable amount of effort and attention to this; not just to writing our 100 word summaries, but to various mock REF exercises, external evaluations, consulting with evaluators from previous rounds, reading exemplars from previously successful universities, etc. If every university is asking its staff to commit a few hours this year to this kind of activity, this mounts up to about 70 person-years of academic staff effort just this year across the country, not counting the REF officers etc. that the universities employ.
As I have noted elsewhere, I can’t imagine that the politicians and civil servants who devised this scheme had any idea that it would be acted on with this amount of diligence. I imagine that they think that come 2021, we will look at what we have been doing over the last few years, spend a hour or so writing the summaries, and that would be that. The idea that we are practicing for this four years in advance wouldn’t even have crossed their mind (despite the fact that, I’m sure, they are equally driven to do vast amounts of similar exercises—mock elections, draft manifestos, etc.).
Why do we do this? Why don’t we just stick to our core business and do good research, then when it comes to the REF just do the summaries etc. and be done with it? Largely, because of the importance of these results; they are fairly granular, last a long time, and the results are financially and reputationally important, therefore a minor screwup could result in bad consequences for a long time. Also, perhaps, because of the sense of needing to be doing something—we have absorbed some idea that managed is better than unmanaged. And also, because everyone else is doing it. If somehow we could all agree to hold back on this and be equally shoddy, we would be in the same position; but, we are in a “red queen” position where we all must run to be in the same place. Such are the structural inefficiencies of a competition-based system,