The REF: an effective tool, or does it inhibit creativity?

Amanda Goodall, Senior Lecturer in Management at Cass, has recently featured in an article in Times Higher Education, where she debates with her husband, Andrew Oswald, on the merits or otherwise of the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

The magazine itself distinguishes between the various pros and cons of the REF. On the positive side, countries that have introduced similar kinds of assessments have undoubtedly seen an improvement in research outputs. The REF can also be said to promote a focus on research, and funding is available for any university to compete for. However, there are perceived drawbacks to the REF too. With the extra focus on research comes the potential for output of low quality. Universities may be tempted to play it safe to secure funding, leaving riskier and potentially ground-breaking research to dwindle. The focus on research may also divert attention from teaching and encourage greater and potentially wasteful bureaucracy.

As a starting point, the opposing spouses look at the development of the important and much cited theoretical work "A Theory of Justice" by John Rawls. The question is asked whether such an important and risk-taking piece of work could emerge from under the system of the REF.

Andrew argues against the REF, stating that researchers are best left to themselves, as governments are unlikely to motivate them effectively. He believes that competition is sufficient to ensure the drive for quality. He also points to the fact that the US does not have a system like the REF in place, and yet it arguably has the strongest research output. For Andrew the REF focuses too greatly on quantity to the detriment of quality.

Although recognising the shortcomings that her husband points to, Amanda makes a positive case for the REF. Both it and its predecessor, the RAE, have helped create a more stringent hiring process in universities. This in turn has diminished the incidence of 'jobs for the boys' appointments and potentially increased the opportunity for women. Amanda also expresses the belief that researchers cannot be relied upon to produce solely on good faith, and that a system such as the REF provides a set of measures to ensure funds are distributed to those most deserving. She argues that the emergence of a piece of work as important as "A Theory of Justice" from an environment not influenced by a framework such as the REF would be an exception rather than the norm.

The full debate can be read at the Times Higher Education website.