The Suffocation of Academic Freedom by the Research Excellence Framework

The Suffocation of Academic Freedom by the Research Excellence Framework

Rumy Hasan
Rumy Hasan
5 min read

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.

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Rumy Hasan

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