Education, Top Stories

The Suffocation of Academic Freedom by the Research Excellence Framework

British universities are devoting large amounts of resources and energy to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a seven-yearly exercise designed to gauge the quality of universities’ research output, and the work produced by their departments and academics. Panels of specialists in various subject areas will examine and mark the quality of work submitted by universities including journal papers, books, monographs, and chapters in books. The exercise is important because of the financial rewards from the government that can accrue. Put simply, the higher the rating of any university department, the larger the income generated. Hence, universities enter the “REF game” to maximise their revenue streams from this source. Not only is this exercise a huge waste of resources but it is also the antithesis of the role of universities and an assault on academic freedom.

Much of research in the arts, humanities, and social sciences is grounded in ideological theory. Hence, judgements of research in these areas are necessarily subjective. The panel members of each subject area (there are 34 “units of assessment”) are deemed to be experts precisely because they advocate mainstream views and their ideological underpinnings. For example, in economics, neoclassical theory is dominant and work is judged according to the conventions and models of this theory—this means that research accorded the highest ranking will invariably be consonant with this theoretical framework. Importantly, this is reflected in the fact that the “top” journals and university departments, as well as grant-making bodies, are staffed by purveyors of this approach. But, since at least the 2008 financial crisis, mainstream economics has come under scrutiny with many (including students) rightly asking why it is so divorced from the real world, and reasonably concluding that this is why it was unable to predict or adequately explain the crisis.

Such concerns, however, will not appreciably affect the REF scores given by the economics panel. Indeed, those who challenge or dissent from the dominant discourse are invariably shut out. Egregiously, their work is usually deemed to be “low quality,” and will therefore tend to garner low REF scores. This is a travesty that cuts against the grain of the pursuit of knowledge and truth through the contestation of ideas, theories, and approaches.

The REF has similarities with the bureaucratic procedures of the former communist bloc countries where a nomenklatura of academics rises to the top through a process of ideological self-selection to occupy the most influential positions in their respective fields. This is especially true of the non-sciences. A university bureaucracy of academics and non-academics is tasked with ensuring “plan fulfilment” of REF submissions for each unit of assessment. The REF “Guidance on submissions” Paragraph 151c sets out the requirement:

Each submitting unit will return a set number of outputs determined by the FTE of Category A submitted staff. The total number of outputs must equal 2.5 times the summed FTE of the unit’s submitted staff. This set number of outputs must comprise of a minimum of one output attributed to each staff member returned, and no more than five attributed to any staff member.

What this impenetrable bureaucratic jargon means is that that each unit must submit an average of 2.5 publications per full-time member of academic staff with a minimum of one and a maximum of five outputs.

A flagrant distortion—without academic or intellectual merit—is the bias in favour of refereed journal articles to the detriment of books, monographs, or shorter pieces. The justification for this is that refereed works have been independently scrutinised by those with expertise in the field. But because non-science journals often have clear ideological biases, the refereeing process is rarely independent. Thus, a pathbreaking book—which may not properly be appreciated until many years after publication—is not likely to be graded as highly as a paper in a supposed “top” journal.

The REF game is an affront to academic freedom as academics are compelled to churn out work in their own narrow fields to maximise the REF scores. The harm of this is palpable: Pressure by various means, including alteration or termination of contract, is often applied to academics thought not to be complying with the rules of the game. Furthermore, conformity reigns supreme at the expense of dissent, creativity, blue-sky thinking, and interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary approaches.

It is striking how the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election came as such a shock to mainstream views in academia, mirroring that of the political and media circles. Nevertheless, academics who predicted these outcomes and had previously wished to explore their causal factors would not have succeeded in obtaining grants from the research councils to do so nor have their ideas published in the most prestigious journals. Just as mainstream economists failed to properly understand and predict the 2008 financial crisis, so too did specialists in politics, cultural and social studies fail in regard to these two seismic events. Politically correct society writ large abjures such phenomena and will shy away from giving any oxygen of publicity or legitimacy to them. That said, somewhat amusingly, the ESRC did express an interest in those who were researching these causal factors after the Brexit vote—but would have previously refrained from funding such research itself.

The REF is a straitjacket on universities in general and on academics in particular and, as such, suffocates the academic freedom that is the bedrock of centres of learning. In a lecture delivered in 1966, President of the British Academy, Lord Robbins cogently explained the profound importance of academic freedom to a free society:

For the demand for academic freedom in institutions of higher education is not the same as the demand for freedom of thought and speech in general: it goes considerably beyond that principle. It is not merely a demand that the academic, in his capacity as a citizen, shall be free to think and speak as he likes; it is a demand that, in his employment as an academic, he shall have certain freedoms not necessarily involved in ordinary contractual relations and that the institutions in which he works shall likewise enjoy certain rights of independent initiative not necessarily granted to other institutions which are part of a state system. The one demand, the demand for freedom of thought and speech in general is, I should hope, a demand which in its general aspect would command widespread, if not universal, support in free societies—how otherwise should they call themselves free?

Lord Robbins went on to stress that academics should have the freedom to “speculate and investigate as the spirit moves one, and to publish without restraint.” Indeed, Lord Robbins’ foundational principles have been adopted by some universities, including the University of Chicago whose Board of Trustees Statute, 18.1 unambiguously states: “The basic policies of The University of Chicago include complete freedom of research and unrestricted dissemination of information.”

The gains to a free society will be far greater if the REF is discontinued and instead the government and universities adopt guidelines for academics along the principles elucidated by Lord Robbins and enacted by the University of Chicago.


Rumy Hasan is a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex and Visiting Professorial Research Fellow at the Civitas Think Tank.

Filed under: Education, Top Stories


Rumy Hasan is the author of Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths (2010) and Religion and Development in the Global South (forthcoming 2017); and a member of the EU’s Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) with a special interest in the prevention of Islamic radicalisation.


  1. I am not an academic, so perhaps I am showing my ignorance on this subject, but wouldn’t a fairer and simpler means of distributing funding be to measure the economic value derived by students and apportion appropriately? Given the masses of data available, and a few automated surveys, it would be a relatively low-cost matter to compile an actuarial database of future earnings by institution and subject matter, to determine which courses are having the maximum benefit for their students. This might unduly benefit the sciences and engineering, but perhaps that is as it should be, given the necessities of global competition and the complex problems confronting the world.

    Plus, it really would be good for the humanities, overall. A philosophy student studying the enlightenment philosophers, especially Adam Smith, is likely to outperform someone who has studied Foucault and Derrida. An English student studying early to mid- twentieth century poets, is far more likely to produce writing of a saleable quality than another student studying postmodern writers- because poetry lends itself to better prose. It might even trigger a cultural renaissance, with Britain taking the cultural centre stage, as well as activist protests by scholars worried that their academic Ponzi schemes will collapse.

  2. I agree with the author’s argument, this is a system that will promote the marginalization of non mainstream thinkers and theory. It is amazing the ways we humans devise systems to insure conformity. Perhaps the best way to distribute government money to these institutions is based upon their enrollment. This could be weighted to favor the STEM fields if promotion of those areas are desirable. But no weight should be given to the sex or ethnicity of the student body.

  3. Ah yes! The siren call of that age-old temptation! The crave for authority, consensus, infallibility, to speak ex-cathedra and put a seal on prophecy! Stalin (im?)famously declared that quantity has a quality all of its own. If enough people with enough academic qualifications agree something is true it becomes true! Conferences come to resemble medieval Church councils and new Canons and edicts are issued every day. The subjective is denied and abolished but never transcended. We forget the past and therefore repeat it.

    But, should this development surprise us? Should we be questioning ALL taxpayer grants to academics? Should we be surprised that he who pays the piper (with OUR money) is finally calling the tune?

  4. On the topic of academic freedom, universities and “Bildung”(education) in general there are very interesting thoughts of Wilhelm von Humboldt, who was the founding father of the german(prussian) university. He argues that universities should be independent of the state and the economy.
    If you are interested, i can write more about it.

  5. > Much of research in the arts, humanities, and social sciences is grounded in ideological theory. Hence, judgements of research in these areas are necessarily subjective.

    I would say that much of the research in the arts, humanities and social sciences is vanity. These people have used their ideological view to create intellectual police states on many campuses around the world. People live in fear of speaking their minds and seeing their careers destroyed by challenging the orthodoxy of progressive “ideological theory”. Ideology has no place in academia, if one wants academic freedom. Ideology is poison.

    I find it ludicrous that the same people who fear they are losing academic freedom are the very same people who viciously deny it to other. And what about the academic freedom of students who are forced to tow the ideological line of their professors or suffer the consequences. There is no real academic freedom, only approved lines of inquiry.

  6. Religion and Development in the Global South (forthcoming 2017)

    Might be time to update the ol’ bio…

  7. The author freely admits it, the people in the Humanities are pushing one set of ideologies. They are not interested in objective well-rounded teaching. They have one goal in mind, push thier ideological agendas of socialism and communism. We should stop all funding of public education, i.e., national level Dept’s of Education, no tax grants, no land grants, no tax payer money at all.

    If localities want to pay for education they can choose for themselves at the state or county level. Or, they can put that same money into local librarys, so the knowledge is there if one wants to pursure it. The worst thing to happen to higher education is the requirement for Humanities classes for college graduation. History, Math, Science, basic Civics, great. But REQUIRING everyone to take “Disabled LGBT Black Women in America” is not very efficient for society or individuals and, it is best left to self-study if one so chooses.

    By their same logic, if it is okay to require youg people to take socialist and communist ideological classes why not make Christianity or attending church a requirement too? Or, maybe we should just keep ideology and metphysics out of it and leave those pursuits up to individual choice. Liberty and freedom are great things.

  8. If such programs could rid universities of ideological faculty—who are uninterested in actual knowledge or discoveries, but who thrive on activism and agitation of young students for pet causes instead of the students’ education—that would be a very good thing. The REF might not help at all with expunging those using their university position to further their pet causes, or, the REF might help with that—time will tell. If it does, well and good. And I would hazard a guess that the author finds the REF anathema not for academic freedom’s sake but for the threat to livelihoods of ideological, activist faculty.

  9. You’re looking at academia purely on the basis of teaching, not on the basis of knowledge generation. Most (all?) academics are expected to generate new knowledge, test their theories (where applicable) and publish that knowledge as a research.

    That’s the kind of thing that’s unworkable without funding, and where private institutions and tech colleges can simply teach. Funding for research at present regularly comes from industry, which means that the research will be largely buried if it’s detrimental to the funder (Impossible Meats, for example) and published if it’s positive.

    Its why, when you see research on milk, for example, it’s components of the milk that are tested (where there’s money to be made on separating those components) but there’s very little funding for research into straightforward raw milk, where nothing needs to be done except chilling and filtering.

  10. I am aware of that aspect of academia, but how would you define what has true worth and merit, as opposed to what serves nothing other than a certain political and cultural ideology? The current system seems somewhat corrupt, and is getting more corrupt, year by year. We even have the intrusion of feminism into areas like biology, with feminist biology, which seems to serve no other purpose other than to obfuscate the clearly proven physical and cognitive differences between men and women, with the aim of supporting the claim that differences in career choice and work-to-life balances are purely socially constructed and the product of an oppressive, white patriarchy.

  11. I agree with the author 100%. I recently came back to work in a British University after 15 years overseas and I am deeply shocked at the decline of freedom and creativity now here because of the REF. Of course, there needs to be accountability, but no other country in the world has anything like this. Sounds like some of the commenters here have bad experiences with partisan teachers. Teachers should present a range of approaches, and encourage critical thinking, question assumptions - that’s where creativity comes from and what universities are for. That is exactly what the REF undermines. Britain is in serious trouble if the REF continues.

Continue the discussion in Quillette Circle