REF2021: get ready for more restructuring

“All staff with significant responsibility for research” will be returned to next Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise in 2021, according to the ‘REF 2021: Decisions on staff and outputs‘ document released earlier this week.

In what will no doubt determine the future careers of many academics currently working in higher education, particularly in post-92 universities, “contractual status will identify the majority of academic staff who have a significant responsibility for research”.

The document does, however, recognise “that there are staff who have more significant responsibility for other activities, including knowledge exchange, professional practice, and scholarship”, and in these cases it will be left to “higher education institutions (HEIs), working with their staff and with guidelines, [to] identify who is in scope for submission among staff meeting core eligibility criteria”.

Perhaps not very reassuring for academic staff who have already witnessed the breakneck speed at which many institutions have restructured – University of Manchester, for example – with no consultation with recognised trade unions, in anticipation of market reforms that have not as yet directly impacted on institutions.

‘Category A eligible’ staff are defined as “academic staff with a contract of employment of 0.2 full-time equivalent (FTE) or greater, on the payroll of the submitting institution on the census date, whose primary employment function is to undertake either ‘research only’ or ‘teaching and research’”.

Furthermore, in a clause no doubt designed to stop institutions ‘importing’ star researchers just for the REF, “staff should have a substantive connection with the submitting institution”.

And finally, “for staff on ‘research only’ contracts, the eligible pool should only include those who are independent researchers, and not research assistants”.

Activists and trade unionists will need to be vigilant in uncovering the inevitable tweaks and outright revisions to existing employment contracts – in most cases this will be done indirectly, perhaps through revisions to progression frameworks and with a cash bonus to manipulate academics into moving onto new contracts.

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