Tag Archives: REF

“Leadership”: Reflections from a striking LA (lady academic) in the NLU (neoliberal university)

LA: I’m going to write a monograph.

NLU1: You can’t do that, as it won’t count as much in the next research evaluation exercise, publish journal articles in top ranking journals instead.

LA: OK, look I published lots of articles in top ranking journals. I got the top score in the research evaluation exercise.

NLU1: That is great, but you really need to get a big grant (so you can keep on doing the work you used to do very well without an external grant).

LA: OK, I got a big grant.

NLU1: That’s great, but now we’ve decided that we’re mostly a STEM university, so we’re not so interested in your grant. We’re going to close a few programmes in humanities and social sciences, just because …

LA: OK, I’ll take a job in another university where STEM and HSS are valued.

NLU1: Fine, see ya.

NLU2: Here’s a new job, great you have this big grant, we like that a lot here, but I’m afraid you need to take a big pay cut. And do REF, REF is coming.

LA: Oh, that sucks, really?

NLU2: Yes, afraid so, but don’t worry, the pension here is much better than in NLU1 and your salary will catch up really quickly. And by the way REF is coming.

LA: Oh yes, I see, the pension does make up for the pay cut and I believe you when you say the pay cut is temporary. OK, I’ll accept the job offer and work on the big grant that I got when I was at NLU1. Can I please have enough time to do the work I promised the funders I would do?

NLU2: Sorry no, the overheads are going to another university so we’re not going to recognize your grant. But here’s an overcapacity teaching load for you. We’ve also based your workload on a physical science model. And by the way REF is coming.

LA: But I am not a physical scientist, I am a humanities scholar.

NLU2: It doesn’t matter. Physical scientists are way cooler than humanists and they get bigger grants, so you should too. And REF is coming, what are you doing about REF?

LA: I’m struggling with this teaching load. Is it possible to have a more manageable teaching load? And I would really like to write my monograph. It would be good for this REF thing you love so much.

NLU2: Maybe you can have a manageable teaching load in the future, but the problem is mostly you and your failure to time manage properly. Even though you’ve been a productive academic for many years and raised two kids as a single parent, please talk to your younger male colleague about how to manage your time better. In the meantime, continue with the overcapacity teaching load. And monographs don’t matter, can’t you just publish in Nature. Nature is the most awesome publication ever. It’s great for REF scores.

LA: No, I am a humanities scholar, I can’t publish in science journals.  Can I please earn as much as my younger and less experienced male colleagues? And I’m still earning a lot less than I was when I came here years ago.

NLU2: No, you can’t. Oh well, maybe you can, get some external grants that bring in overheads, oh and do some leadership. And some impact and some knowledge exchange. But don’t forget REF.

LA: OK, I got some grants that brought in overheads, even though I’m still trying to deliver on the external grant that doesn’t bring in overheads to this NLU. And I’m doing some leadership. And some impact and some knowledge exchange. Can I please have a manageable teaching load, so I can do the work I promised the funders I would do? By the way, I still want to write my monograph.

NLU2: No sorry, the grants you got aren’t big enough. But here’s an overcapacity teaching load for you. Also, what have you got for the REF?

LA: I can’t get bigger grants because I need time to work on the existing grants and do my overcapacity teaching load. And also because I am a humanities scholar and the grant income targets are unrealistic and unattainable. Oh, did you ever notice that my teaching is really good?  I get really good evaluations and nominations for teaching awards.

NLU2: I see that, but our NSS scores are disappointing. You need to do even better.

LA: Now I’ve got some external grants, and have done some leadership, and some impact and some knowledge exchange, and have been a great teacher in spite of my overcapacity teaching load, can I please earn as much as my younger  and less experienced male colleagues? I put my monograph on hold to do all the other things you wanted me to do.

NLU2: No, because you haven’t adequately demonstrated the consequences of your leadership. You need to make your leadership visible, like a superhero might. Didn’t you ever watch Superman?

LA: No but I saw Wonder Woman and it made me feel like smashing the patriarchy for a good half hour after the movie.

NLU2: Whatever. And REF, REF, REF.

LA: Ok, now I’m still doing my overcapacity teaching load and demonstrating the consequences of my leadership, so I don’t have time to deliver on the grants you asked me to get but then decided weren’t large enough. And I still don’t have time to write my monograph.

NLU2: Least of your problems, actually, as now we’ve decided to cut your pension. We’ve decided we are going to make your pension even worse than it was in NLU1. You can retire on £6000 a year.

LA: But I can’t live off £6000 a year. You told me that I would get a better pension if I took a job here.

NLU2: Yes, but we’ve changed our mind. The good thing is that we can manufacture narratives and fake numbers because we’re not subject to peer review or REF criteria. That being rigorous, methodologically sound and transparent stuff is just for you guys. And anyway, we need money for shiny buildings and VC salaries in order to enhance the student experience.

LA: OK, I’ll withdraw my labour.

NLU2: But you’ll harm the students. Don’t you care about your students?

LA: The students are supporting us. They are tired of the commodification of the university too. They’re occupying a university building in solidarity with us. And learning about resistance and how to make a better kind of university for them and for us. They are getting a fantastic education in the occupation.

NLU2: They can’t simply occupy university premises.

LA: They already did. While we’ve been on strike, we’ve been thinking a lot about leadership and impact. Do the VCs have to do some leadership and impact things too? You know, make their leadership more consequential and impactful. We are paying them quite well. They won’t have to live off £6000 a year in retirement.

NLU2: The VCs are so important that they can only do non-committal forms of leadership. And they have access to really complex information that you don’t get to see and wouldn’t understand anyway. They are really smart dudes. So smart, they don’t even stand by the work they published in top-ranking journals when they were ordinary academics.

LA: OK, I’ll be working well into my 70s, maybe I can write my monograph then. I’m grateful that you’ve given me such an in-depth insight into the gendered and embodied consequences of the marketization of the university.

NLU2: Just come back to work, you’ll miss an important REF workshop if you don’t. And we’ll have to give your grant overheads back to the funders and we need this money for our building projects and rounds of pornstar martinis.

LA: Actually no, I like the way the Cochabambinos and the Zapatistas said “¡Ya basta!”.

NLU2: I have no idea what that means.

LA: No, but our students do, that is why they’re in the occupation.

 

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The Stern REF review: What will happen to the feminist geographers?

The REF is a flawed problematic technology that emerges in the context of the neoliberalization of higher education and is widely criticized by academics across blogs and journal pages. In my experience, most research and teaching active academics tolerate the REF, but not many of us embrace it. It detracts from our teaching and scholarship, it encourages disciplinary forms of performance management, it discourages long-term and ambitious monograph projects, and makes it difficult to embody alternative (non-REFable) academic subjectivities. As a result of the high social and financial cost of the REF, the government commissioned an independent review carried out by Nicholas Stern that has now been published. I was surprised to read in the review that “many respondents to our consultation stated that research and the HE sector would be poorer without it and that largely the benefits far outweigh the costs”. The review does not say who the respondents to the consultation were nor how extensive it was. So the review starts with an assumption that REF is mostly good and is here to stay but that it needs a little improvement here and there. The review identifies some of the  flaws with the system and poses some recommendations in order to mitigate these. Since the review was published last week, a number of scholars have produced a range of critiques and endorsements that I have read with interest (see for example Campaign for the Public University 2016; Morrish 2016; Bhandar 2016; Wilsdon 2016). While a minority welcome the recommendations, the majority are more critical and have emphasized how the recommendations will be harmful to early career and BAME scholars. I think they are also potentially harmful to women and to scholars whose work is seen as marginal within their school or college.

The review identifies some of the well-known problems with the REF and there are three on which I wish to comment: the question of portability; the question of equality and diversity; and the question of interdisciplinarity. The recommendations seek to prevent the so-called “gaming” of the system, in particular where institutions hire high performing scholars just before the census date in order to enhance their REF return, by putting an end to the portability of outputs. They also seek to enhance equality and diversity at tertiary institutions. The review notes with concern how white men get submitted at a much higher rate than both women and people of colour. Finally, the review also wants to make it easier for interdisciplinary research to get included.

Portability

The section on portability is so flawed, it beggars belief. A number of commentaries have flagged its problem for early career scholars on short term contracts, pointing out how the university that has failed to give them a permanent contract should not be able to benefit from their publications and undermine their future career prospects. But the lack of portability is not just a problem for ECRs but for anyone. Indeed, it appears to be based on an assumption that good scholars only move jobs because they have been poached for REF purposes. They do not. They move to be closer to a partner (the nature of the academic job market and the absence of formal spousal hire policies means that lots of academic couples are living apart and commuting and seek as soon as they can to change that state of affairs) or elderly parent, to be able to see more of their adult kids or babysit their grandkids, because they want a job in a more affordable city where they can buy a house, because their head of school or dean is making their life a misery, and because they want to be closer to a fieldsite, co-author or collaborator. People who need or want to move should not be deprived of their intellectual property. The idea of date of acceptance is of course also profoundly arbitrary. Books can take many years to write and journal articles can be based on many years of fieldwork. Publications get started in one institution and finished in another. Heavy teaching and administrative workloads means that publications also get written in the evenings, at weekends and during annual leave. Imagine being told that the articles you wrote in your own time no longer belonged to you. Stern’s recommendations might terminate one kind of gaming but will lead to another. As a journal editor in the US, Neil Smith (2010) recalled receiving a phone call from a British scholar that urged rapid acceptance of a submitted paper “because our RAE submissions are due in two weeks” (RAE was the precursor to REF). In the future, scholars will be asking editors and publishers to post-date letters of acceptance so they can take forthcoming publications with them to a new position. And if you wrote the article in your own time, because 35 hours a week is simply not enough time to write and do other work, can an institution tell you that you can’t take it with you?

Equality, diversity and interdisciplinarity

The review seeks to enhance equality and diversity by insisting that all academics are returned. It also seeks to secure improved recognition for interdisciplinary research. But it instantly undermines these aims in two ways. First, it allows for a differential number of submissions per academic to be submitted. While an average of two per academic is the aim, some people could submit fewer (even potentially none which I am sure is no different than not being included) and some more, up to a maximum of six. Second, it calls for some measure of metrics to be added to the (secret[i]) peer review. I can see instantly how both of these measures could be highly negative, as a result of both gender and institutional location. I am a human geographer in a School of Geosciences, a school that must accommodate humanities scholars and geophysicists, critical social scientists and positivist ones. We have a College of Humanities and Social Sciences but we are not in it as the School of Geosciences is located in the College of Science and Engineering. The enormous differences in our epistemological and methodological approaches, not to mention in modes of writing, publishing, supervising, securing funding and co-authoring make REF particularly challenging. In the last REF, in order to maximize the financial return, the School submitted all academics to ‘Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences’ (Unit of Assessment B7) rather than to ‘Geography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology’ (Unit of assessment C17). Outputs authored by geographers were cross-referred to C17, but essentially we made a single submission to B7. But we all submitted four outputs so it was equalizing in that respect, even if as geographers we would have preferred to only have submitted to C17. If in the next REF, the School decides to submit once again to B7 and a differential number of outputs are allowed, we might find it is not only women and people of colour who are de-selected but scholars whose work is least like “earth systems”. It would certainly make the construction of a coherent narrative more straightforward if the work conducted by feminist scholars or queer theorists did not have to be included in the narrative. In other words, the serious risk exists that human geographers will be submitted at a lower rate than earth scientists or geoscientists. These inequalities as well as those of gender are likely to be exacerbated by the proposed addition of metrics to the existing system of peer review. A recent study (Writing for Research 2014) has shown that the citation rate in the natural sciences is six times greater than in the humanities. Other studies have revealed that men get cited far more than women. This is because men tend to cite mostly men, and women tend to cite both men and women (see Ahmed 2013; Ingraham 2016). Even in human geography, men get cited at five times the rate of women (of the 100 most cited human geographers on Google Scholar, only 21 are female). So if you were trying to maximize REF returns in B7, in a system where metrics matter, the article by a female humanities scholar with ten citations is going to look far less appealing that the article by a male geoscientist with 100 citations. The Stern review sheds no light on how these inequalities might be avoided. Maybe the new focus on interdisciplinarity will help scholars like me but I have no idea what Stern means by interdisciplinarity as no definition is provided. Is interdisciplinary work when a physical geographer works with a geologist (drawing on principles in geomorphology) or when a human geographer works with an anthropologist (drawing on feminist poststructuralist theory) or is interdisciplinary work when a positivist geophysicist works with a decolonial queer theorist? The first two examples are straightforward and commonplace theoretically and epistemologically, the final one is hard to imagine. Equality and diversity could be enhanced and the problem of interdisciplinarity minimized by allowing researchers to submit to the panel of their choice, as occurs in the New Zealand PBRF[ii], and then scores are aggregated at school or departmental level.

So Lord Stern, I feel totally underwhelmed by your intervention.

References

Ahmed S (2013) Making feminist points. feministkilljoys [blog] 11 September https://feministkilljoys.com/2013/09/11/making-feminist-points/

Bhandar B (2016) The Stern Review. London Review of Books 2 August http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2016/08/02/brenna-bhandar/the-stern-review/

Campaign for the Public University (2016) Let a hundred flowers fade … The Stern Review [blog] 29 July http://publicuniversity.org.uk/2016/07/29/let-a-hundred-flowers-fade-the-stern-review/

Cupples J and Pawson E (2012) Giving an account of oneself: The PBRF and the neoliberal university. New Zealand Geographer 68(1): 14-23

Ingraham C (2016) New study finds that men are often their own favorite experts on any given subject. The Washington Post 1 August https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/08/01/new-study-finds-that-men-are-often-their-own-favorite-experts-on-any-given-subject/?hpid=hp_hp-more-top-stories_wb-experts-1020am%3Ahomepage%2Fstory

Writing for Research (2014) Poor citation practices are a form of academic self-harm in the humanities and social sciences. Medium 27 October https://medium.com/advice-and-help-in-authoring-a-phd-or-non-fiction/poor-citation-practices-are-a-form-of-academic-self-harm-in-the-humanities-and-social-sciences-2cddf250b3c2#.zgh1cha9t

Morrish L (2016) A Stern talking to? Academic irregularities [blog], 28 July https://academicirregularities.wordpress.com/2016/07/28/a-stern-talking-to/

Smith N (2010) Academic free fall. Social Text 21 August http://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/academic_free_fall/

Wilsdon J (2016) The road to REF 2021: why I welcome Lord Stern’s blueprint for research assessment. The Guardian 29 July https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2016/jul/29/why-i-welcome-lord-sterns-blueprint-for-research-assessment-ref-2021-stern-review

Notes

[i] I say secret because you don’t get to find out how your outputs were graded and what score you were awarded. Academics who tried to get their own scores through FOI requests were told to go away.

[ii] Before returning to the UK in 2013, I experienced three rounds of research audit in New Zealand under the PBRF (Performance Based Research Fund). The PBRF in many ways is an abhorrent, governmentalizing technology that like the REF subjects academics to disciplinary performance management regimes and heavy handed surveillance. It is however also a technology within which, as Eric Pawson and I argued, one can carve out subversive spaces of self-esteem and affirmation (Cupples and Pawson 2012). Since being exposed to the REF, I have to say I miss the PRBF (I can’t believe I am saying this), which is a fairer, more inclusive and more transparent system that overcomes some of the problems I have identified above and addresses many more. If we are to have research audit (and I wish we didn’t), it is a pity that Stern did not explore alternative audit systems elsewhere in the world. The PBRF is a better system than the REF for at least three reasons. First, rather than a system in which a unit of assessment/school narrative is authored in secret by a small group of academics, in New Zealand individual academics get to craft their own portfolios and write their own narratives. This means you can submit to the panel that most suits your work and don’t end up in a situation where human geographers are submitted to earth sciences panels as part of a school submission. You can be as interdisciplinary as you like and say so and cross refer yourself to a second panel. Second, you get to find out your own individual score. I know this is problematic in some ways, but in the REF you are asked to produce world class research without knowing whether your research in the last round was already world class. It is much more transparent than REF. Third, everyone is submitted, nobody is excluded on the basis of citation rates, gender or for any other reason, and you submit everything you published but nominate four outputs as being especially significant. It is OK not to have four if you are an early career scholar.