academia, Higher Education, job market, research

It’s that time of REF again! (episode 2 of the Fabulous Four)

Second in a series of posts, all drawn from my own – often suffered – experience of the academic world, about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research and dissemination (in random order). The first post, on the correct placement of notes in a text, is available here.

Episode 2 (research)

It’s that time of REF again!

REF.

Research Excellence Framework.

If you study or work in a UK higher education context then you are bound to have heard of it. And if you don’t, you will.

In short, the Research Excellence Framework is a national assessment of the quality of UK higher education research. Last undertaken in 2014, the next REF will take place in 2021. Expert panels will assess three elements for each submission: research outputs, impact and environment. These elements will form the overall quality profile of an institution. Each eligible member of staff has to submit 1 to 5 research outputs, which will mostly be publications.

I contributed to the REF of 2014, when I had only just been awarded a three-year postdoctoral fellowship in a Scottish university. My first monograph was being prepared for publication, whereas a number of journal articles and a special issue had been accepted or recently published. I remember the Head of Department – who was collecting data for the REF submission ­– sounding awfully pleased as I sent him details of all these publications. Too bad my “impressive” contribution to the School’s pool of outputs didn’t leave any further marks on him, given his forgetting to mention me in a list of recently departed staff members, in a School Newsletter published three years later. I guess that’s the REF for you.

The REF is, indeed, quite an opportunistic business, as was its predecessor: the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise). Back in 2007 I approached a British university for a doctoral project – I had recently finished an MA and was temporarily selling clothes at the weekly market of Bologna (Italy), where I had participated in an Erasmus exchange programme. Failing to win a fellowship competition in my home university, in the Netherlands, and without much hope to get into the Italian academic world, I decided to seek my fortune in the UK. Unfortunately, it was too late to apply for any funding schemes, but I was offered a fee waiver, provided that I started my PhD in July as opposed to September 2007. As I didn’t see myself selling clothes at the market for much longer, I accepted, even a bit flattered that they had offered me a fee waiver, thinking that my project must have sounded really interesting to them. Oh the naivety! It seems, in fact, that the offer of fee waiver/earlier start date allowed the Department to count me among its PhD cohort for the upcoming RAE, a strategy other departments had apparently also applied, so I discovered later on when talking to other PhD students.

So you see, it all comes down to numbers, assessments, rankings. Some institutions don’t even bother to cover this up: recently, a job vacancy was posted where a university explicitly wrote that it was seeking to recruit a postdoctoral researcher to help deliver high-quality outputs for REF 2021, in particular for impact case studies. Given that the position was fixed (one year) and part-time, and that self-motivation was among the required skills, we may deduct from this that the university was looking for someone to help organise exhibitions or write up reports on behalf of overworked staff members…And to then have the courage to write that the successful applicant could “progress” to a higher rate – on a one-year contract?!

It’s not unusual. I constantly come across one-year job postings, and they all sound pretty much the same. I understand precarious researchers feel their heart leap with joy whenever such a position opens within their discipline, or maybe at the same university where they are completing a PhD or a postdoc, but it’s usually a trap. Of course there is chance that, once you get a foot in the door, you may eventually obtain a permanent position. And it does occasionally happen for real. Most of the time, though, it doesn’t.

I recall a temporary teaching post being opened in the university where I was completing my postdoc. I decided not to apply, because I knew all my time would go into teaching, marking and admin, with no time left to do any serious research or publish articles (which counts A LOT when applying for lecturer jobs). All this for not even a year’s contract, for the job would only cover the teaching and marking period (September-May). How to keep paying your rent and bills during the summer recess apparently didn’t interest the School, a clear indicator that it had no intention whatsoever to extend the job position beyond the contract itself. In the end, the School did actually create a permanent lecturer position, the following year, but apparently the person who got the one-year teaching job – and who obviously applied for the lecturer job – wasn’t hired for that. Instead, they offered her to cover a maternity leave: better than nothing, but hardly what she had bargained for.

In sum, as the REF 2021 deadline approaches, many HE institutions will be recruiting short-term staff members to help stack their REF submissions. My advice is to refrain, if you can afford it. Early career researchers deserve respect and support, as well as long-term perspectives: job- and research-wise. You are not numbers or boxes to tick, but qualified scholars who need some level of stability and security to do their job. As important as even a nine-month job might seem for your bank account or CV, spilling energy and academic capital to then find yourself applying for new jobs – a really time-consuming part of academic life – within less than a year, well, it’s not really worth it, is it?

That said, the REF also puts much pressure on those in a permanent job, and there is a steadily rising wave of UK academics leaving permanent jobs (as this Twitter thread demonstrates). This is obviously not a result of the REF alone, but granted, it doesn’t help either. Maybe universities themselves aren’t even to blame entirely.

So what can we do about this? I would say: be more selective when applying for jobs, and most of all, believe in yourself and in your skills. You’re not a number but a person, with academic capital, and if universities want that, they need to give something back.

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