Thoughts on the REF

17 12 2014

By the time this post goes live, the results of the 2014 Research Excellent Framework will have been released. For the benefit of overseas readers I should explain that the REF is a system of auditing the quantity and quality of scholarship produced in UK universities.  The stakes are high since the allocation of government funds to universities partly depends on how universities score on the REF.  Within universities,  the allocation of resources between competing departments will be influenced by REF performance.

Over the last few days,  the UK academic blogosphere has been filled with condemnations of the REF.  Let me play devil’s advocate by defending the REF.

There is demand for university rankings.   I view university rankings as a public good, or at least a good the state is best equipped to provide.  (I’m very skeptical of a lot of arguments that things are public goods, but in this case I think that university rankings can be fairly regarded as a public good). Unless good rankings are produced by qualified people,  the vacuum will be filled by bad ranking systems produced by people with flawed methodologies and skimpy budgets (e.g., by newspapers). Part of the criticism of the REF process is cost, which is at least £60 million.  In my view,  this investment in data gathering and processing reflects well on the UK government.  Private-sector efforts to rank universities are under resourced: it appears that the Times Higher rankings are produced by just one or two employees. Granted,  those employees are probably paid well and occupy pricey office space in central London, but the media-produced university rankings just seem amateurish when compared against the sheer resources of the REF. It’s like comparing a science fair project to the Manhattan Project.  Moreover,  when media companies like the Times or US News and World Report rank universities,  they have little incentive to try to be as accurate as possible beyond the need to produce rankings that are so laughably wrong as to undermine the reputational capital of the parent corporation.  That’s because they lack skin in the game,  as I explained in a previous blog post. It isn’t as if the Times Higher rankings are used to allocate a pile of cash that the owners of the Times have set aside for the purposes of investing in higher education.  When governments and philanthropists such as the Ford Foundation rank universities, they have a far greater incentive to try to produce high rankings.  Admittedly, government involvement in rankings also carries risks, but in a society in which public-sector bribe taking is rare, as in the UK, these risks are manageable.

P.S. This post was written on 17 December, before the announcement of the REF results.

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