The Emerging UK Policy Landscape for Researchers

Today we launch a new new series looking at the nexus of higher education, social science and impact measurement written and curated by Louis Coiffait. Louis is a commentator, researcher, speaker, and adviser focused on higher education policy, with a particular interest in impact and knowledge exchange. He has worked with Pearson, Taylor & Francis, SAGE Publishing (the parent of Social Science Space) , Wonkhe, think tanks, the Higher Education Academy, the National Foundation for Educational Research, the National Association of Head Teachers, the Teacher Training Agency, an MP, and a minister.

In this first in a series of articles about impact, I’d like to introduce myself by providing an overview of the current situation for researchers (including social scientists) in the United Kingdom. I’ll mainly be discussing higher education in England, as devolution means Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are heading down increasingly divergent paths, though some elements remain common. Apologies in advance for all the acronyms but I didn’t cook-up this alphabet soup.

Seven weeks from this Friday the UK will exit the European Union, although the details of Brexit still remain highly uncertain – in particular what it means for research funding, regulation and workers. The UK civil service is also in the process of a Comprehensive Spending Review, with the last such evaluation and planning exercise in 2015. Meanwhile, in higher education, the government’s “major” Review of Post-18 Education and Funding is nearly over, advised by an independent panel led by Philip Augar. All three issues are likely to mean less funding for UK higher education, the combination could be a perfect storm. This makes for a highly uncertain context for universities and researchers.

UK higher education is ruled via three government ‘frameworks’, each of three letters and each intended to bind universities to achieve different objectives.

Research Excellence Framework (REF)

The Research Excellence Framework (and its predecessor, the Research Assessment Exercise) is the most well-established of the three, occurring in some form every six years since 1986. The last exercise was in 2014; the next iteration is due in 2021, meaning the whole sector is already gearing up for the substantial task of preparing submissions.

REF is the UK government’s chosen method to try and achieve three things: provide accountability for public investment in research and demonstrate its benefits (return on investment), benchmark information about research quality, and inform c. £2 billion (US$2.6 billion) of funding each year.

It’s a unique and major bureaucratic exercise, involving expert review by 34 subject-specific panels, guided by four main panels. Members include senior academics, international members and users of research.  After the venerable Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) was split in two last year, the process is now overseen by the new research funder UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Three aspects of research are assessed: the quality of outputs (e.g. publications, performances, and exhibitions); the environment that supports research; and their ‘impact’ beyond academia.

A growing proportion of that funding – from 20 pecfent in 2014 to 25 percent in 2021 – will be awarded for research impact, typically on policy and practice. The definition of impact remains unclear and contested, although the official guidance (out last week) defines impact as “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia”. Universities will be preparing case studies that attempt to demonstrate impact in this way.

Despite its long lineage, REF remains controversial, with fears of biases towards particular disciplines, methods and institutions, and of game-playing.

Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF)

Now in its third year, the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework has evolved rapidly, most recently with the addition of student outcomes, as measured by the salaries of previous graduates using Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO), a new experimental dataset that links education participation with tax receipts.

TEF is intended to measure teaching quality and the resulting outcomes for students, to provide public accountability and inform student choice. The introduction (then tripling, twice) of tuition fees, the removal of student number caps, and the withdrawal of government funding for all but the most expensive courses – have all been intended to make UK higher education more of a market, both encouraging students to choose between providers and incentivising universities to improve.

Although it is not actually a measure of teaching excellence (turns out that’s quite hard to do), TEF contains a complex basket of institution-level assessments of teaching quality – from surveys of students and graduates to official data about dropout rates. Akin to the Olympics, institutions are awarded bronze, silver and gold. There are also plans afoot to attempt a subject-level TEF.

The process is overseen by the new higher education regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), and ratings are judged by an independent panel of students, academics and others. It’s still unclear how useful TEF really is, with an independent review about to start.

Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF)

The Knowledge Exchange Framework is the new kid on the block, aiming to provide performance information about knowledge exchange activities that is comparable, benchmarked, and transparent. The government hopes this data will be used internally by English universities to improve, and externally by businesses and others to help them understand and engage with universities. And of course, it will be used as a further accountability measure.

Knowledge exchange is another slippery concept, sometimes called technology transfer, technology exchange, knowledge transfer, engagement, and a range of other names. Again the concepts and definitions remain opaque and contested. It’s everything beyond research and teaching, but also includes a bit of both. My favourite definition is that knowledge exchange is about getting new knowledge — created through research and transmitted through teaching — out to other people so they can use it in some way, too.

Details for the first round of KEF are currently being consulted on and piloted. The plan is to use existing institution-level data on an annual basis, with potential activities divided into seven different “perspectives” – from research partnerships and IP, to local regeneration and public engagement. Given the limitations of suitable metrics, it’s proposed that two of the seven areas use narrative submissions. Questions remain about how this new framework works alongside the other two, especially the impact element of REF.

So there we have it, the (big picture) scene is set for UK research (including the social sciences) for the foreseeable future. But as ever, the devil lies in the details, so over the course of this series, I’ll explore some of the many outstanding questions and tensions, and engaging key experts in that debate. If you want to be involved please get in touch via email or Twitter.

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Louis Coiffait

Louis Coiffait is a commentator, researcher, speaker, and adviser focused on higher education policy, with a particular interest in impact and knowledge exchange

He has worked with Pearson, Taylor & Francis, SAGE Publishing, Wonkhe, think tanks, the Higher Education Academy, the National Foundation for Educational Research, the National Association of Head Teachers, the Teacher Training Agency, an MP, and a Minister.

He has led projects on how publishers can support the impact agenda, the future of higher education (the Blue Skies series at Pearson), access to elite universities, careers guidance, enterprise education, and the national STEM skills pipeline (for the National Audit Office).

He is also committed to volunteering, including over a decade as a school governor and chair of an eight-school federation in Hackney in East London, and recently as vice-chair of a school in Tower Hamlets. He spent three years as chair of Westminster Students’ Union.

He studied at York, UCLA and Cambridge. Louis is an RSA Fellow, amateur photographer, “enthusiastic” sportsman, proud East London citizen and Yorkshireman (really).

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