March of the Schaculties

An earlier version of this blog referred to a specific School. We have removed these references in order not to single out one School.
The new Schaculties are up and running and the new Heads of School are starting to issue their schrategy documents. Meanwhile, Professor Badcock has invited external speakers in to “help” everyone to start thinking about the College’s next strategic plan.
Sometimes we forget how privileged we are to be working at Royal Holloway. As recently as 2011, we were ranked 88th in the world in the Times Higher rankings. The College operated on a system of consensus. While that meant that change might be slowed down, it also meant that everyone was on board. Strategies of prudence meant that the College was in fine financial fettle.
The change in national higher education strategy under the coalition government involved HEU fees rising from £3000 to £9000 in one fell swoop, with uncapped student numbers following shortly thereafter. The unit of resource per student effectively went up by 50% and we could admit more of these highly profitable students. While uncapped numbers meant greater competition (notably from the Russell Group) for top students, standing still in student numbers would have meant a large increase in our income that could be spent on appropriate buildings and, crucially, deepening the academic structure with new hires of talented lecturers, while tough student recruitment standards would have further raised our standing in league tables as well as the quality of education.
Be that as it may, there is a vital REF occurring next year. While senior scholars cast scorn on the NSS and the TEF, and leading experts in equalities view ‘tick box’ schemes as at best a diversion, the REF remains largely respected in the sector, and is noted internationally. The College did well in the 2014 REF with an overall GPA ranking of 26th in the country (modestly down from 24th in the 2008 REF). Ultimately, each Schaculty will be judged on how it does in the upcoming REF. As resources in the sector are frozen or declining (whether or not the Augar recommendations on lowering fees are adopted), the College as a whole vitally depends on each Schaculty succeeding in the REF as well as the College’s overall REF outcome.

Continue reading “March of the Schaculties”

Some thoughts on the RHUL draft REF code of practice

All colleagues will have noticed the circulation, at the start of April, of the college’s draft Code of Practice for submission to the Research Excellence Framework 2021, and we hope that members took the time to read the draft and offer feedback through the designated channels. This blog highlights some positive elements of the Code and some areas for concern we think colleagues should be aware of.

Under the REF rules, the Code of Practice needs to be agreed with the UCU local branch before submission. The Chair of the local branch has written to HR to ensure that they will send the Committee the revised version – taking account of the consultation exercise – for us to examine to see if our concerns have been addressed. Our concerns must be addressed before we sign off this Code of Practice.

There are some very positive elements in the draft Code. We are glad to see that college intend to follow Birkbeck’s lead and not include outputs from staff who have been made redundant in the REF submission – although we’d welcome more clarity about whether this extends to staff who decide to take advantage of the current voluntary severance scheme, and we’re not entirely convinced that it’s in the interest of colleagues on fixed-term contracts to be included in the submission.

We were also pleased to see a detailed outline of the procedures for the rolling internal assessments of potential REF outputs, and a clear statement at the outset that “decisions by the College on the workload, promotion or career progression of any individual member of academic staff will not be affected by their projected performance in the REF2021 submission”. There are some places where this clear stance seems to get blurred later in the guidance – this needs to be clarified in the next version of the draft Code. We would like to see a stronger commitment that no colleagues will be pressured to change contract types. It is also worth remembering that this guidance does not reflect what has happened in individual departments in the run-up to REF, and that individuals may already have been negatively affected by REF-related decisions. As impressive as a policy looks on paper, it’s only worth anything if it’s actively implemented.

The Code commits itself to a safe and voluntary process for collecting data on personal circumstances, allowing colleagues to decide whether to disclose their circumstances or not. It also outlines a process for identifying how any reductions in outputs should be passed directly on colleagues affected, although these seem to be shaped by the maximum number of outputs rather than the expected average. There are promises of support for staff experiencing special circumstances – we look forward to increased clarity on how this support will be delivered and by whom. We also expect that the final version will include more detail on support and allowances made for colleagues who have disabilities or work on a part-time basis.

There are other concerns which also needs addressing. The Code asks eligible academic colleagues to “nominate all items they regard as having the potential to be assessed as at least 3*”. It is hard to understand what this is meant to achieve. A more sensible approach would be to ask colleagues to list their 5 best outputs (the maximum that can be submitted) in order of preference. The College will have to list at least one article for each member of staff on a contract with a research component. Asking colleagues to self-assess what is a 3* output opens the door for gender and other bias if staff with protected characteristics ‘undersell’ their research compared to others.

The criteria for identifying who counts as an independent researcher do not seem to cover postdocs in all disciplines. While it looks like every researcher on a research and teaching contract will be considered as having significant responsibility for research and thus must be submitted to the REF, there’s nothing mentioned about how the members of the Senior Management Team will be judged, nor the new Heads of School. In fact, the whole Code is remarkably light on how this process will fit into the new School structure – a serious issue given that the Code is due to be submitted to the central REF team at the start of June.

At present, the Code offers multiple opportunities for the college REF steering group to override the decisions of individual REF leads, who will have a greater familiarity with their colleagues’ research and how to represent the work of the unit over the assessment period. But there’s no clear indication of what the justification for such an intervention would be.

In sum, there are parts of the Code which we welcome, and there are other parts which we expect to be shaped by feedback from colleagues before UCU agreement on the final submission to the REF. Whatever happens, the only true test of how good this Code is will be how it is used. This time around, there’s nowhere for the College to hide on this – the chair of the Equality and Diversity panel has written to the sector giving them fair warning that her team will be comparing the environment template and the code of practice to see whether the warm words turn into practical action and support. Let’s hope the Senior Management Team have been paying attention. The local branch certainly intends to watch carefully how the eventually agreed Code of Practice is applied, and to ensure that staff with protected characteristics are treated in an even-handed manner.