Rank Hypocrises: The Insult of the REF

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Derek Sayer

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    Acknowledgements

    Derek Sayer’s book is essential reading for all university researchers and research policy makers. It discusses the waste, biases and pointlessness of Britain’s Research Excellence Framework (REF), and its misuse by universities. The book is highly readable, astute, sharply analytical and very intelligent. It paints a devastating portrait of a scheme that is useless for advancing research and that does no better job at ranking research performance than do the global indexes but does so for a huge cost in time, money, duplication, and irritation. Anyone interested in research ranking, assessment, and the contemporary condition of the universities should read this book.

    Peter Murphy, Professor of Arts and Society, James Cook University

    Sayer makes a compelling argument that the Research Excellence Framework is not only expensive and divisive, but is also deeply flawed as an evaluation exercise. Rank Hypocrisies is a rigorous and scholarly evaluation of the REF, yet written in a lively and engaging style that makes it highly readable.

    Dorothy Bishop, University of Oxford

    Many academics across the world have come to see the REF – and its RAE predecessor – as an arrogant attempt to raise national research standards that has resulted in a variety of self-inflicted wounds to UK higher education. Derek Sayer is the Thucydides of this situation. A former head of the Lancaster history department, he fell on his sword trying to deal with a university that behaved in an increasingly irrational manner as it tried to game a system that is fundamentally corrupt in both its conception and execution. Rank Hypocrisies is more than a cri de coeur. It is the best documented diagnosis of a regime that has distorted the idea of peer review beyond recognition. Only someone with the clear normative focus of a former insider could have written this work. Thucydides would be proud.

    Steve Fuller, University of Warwick

    The REF is right out of Havel’s and Kundera’s Eastern Europe: a state-administered exercise to rank academic research like hotel chains – 2 star, 3 star – dependent on the active collaboration of the UK professoriate. In crystalline text steeped in cold rage, Sayer takes aim at the REF’s central claim, that it is a legitimate process of expert peer review. He provides a short history of the RAE/REF. He critiques university and national-level REF processes against actual practices of scholarly review as found in academic journals, university presses, and North American tenure procedures. His analysis is damning. If the REF fails as scholarly review, how can academics and universities continue to participate? And how can government use its rankings as a basis for public policy?

    Tarak Barkawi, London School of Economics

    Rank Hypocrisies offers a compellingly convincing critique of the research auditing exercise to which university institutions have become subject. Derek Sayer lays bare the contradictions involved in the REF and provides a forensic analysis of the problems and inconsistencies inherent in the exercise as it is currently constituted. A must read for all university academic staff and the fast multiplying cadre of higher education managers and, in particular, government ministers and civil servants in the Department of Business Innovation and Skills.

    Barry Smart, University of Portsmouth

    Preface

    I apologize in advance for the dry and sometimes legalistic style of this book, which is typical of works written with the intention of influencing public policy. But what gave rise to it was deep anger: anger as a citizen, at seeing unforgiveable amounts of scarce public money – money that could have funded research, or teaching, or student bursaries – squandered every six years on a national research audit I came to believe served no real purpose other than to keep Britain’s academic elites in power; anger as a scholar, at seeing intellectual horizons narrowed, imaginations cramped and ‘risky’ work marginalized in the interests of maximizing universities’ REF scores; and anger as a colleague, at seeing fellow academics excluded from the REF, their reputations tarnished and their confidence eroded on the basis of their own universities’ internal evaluations of publications that had already passed the far more rigorous peer reviewing procedures of international publishing houses and journals. My discontent with the REF had been simmering since I returned to the UK in 2006 after 20 years teaching in Canada, but it was this treatment of colleagues that led me to pen a series of posts criticizing the REF on my blog coastsofbohemia during the fall of 2013. I believed it my professional and moral duty as a senior professor to take a public stand against what Peter Scott has described as ‘a monster, a Minotaur that must be appeased by bloody sacrifices’.1

    When Chris Rojek (who had been reading my blog with ‘mounting incredulity’) approached me with the idea of writing a short book on the REF to inaugurate the new SAGE Swifts series I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. I am grateful to be given a platform for developing my arguments at greater length. By the time I received Chris’s invitation I had begun a period of sabbatical leave at the Institute for Historical Research of the University of Texas at Austin. I owe particular thanks to Mary Neuburger, Seth Garfield and (especially) Courtney Meador for making my stay as enjoyable as it was productive. This work was born, however, in the unruly new world of social media that upsets the powers that be from Ankara to Kansas,2 and it is in that world that I have incurred my major debts. I take my title and subtitle from two tweets, one congratulating me for successfully ‘calling out the rank hypocrisy of the REF’, the other thanking me for having ‘the integrity, courage and logic to out the insult of the REF’. I have received plentiful support on social media from many people, most of them in academia but some not, through whose efforts my posts have been widely circulated, read and commented on. Many of them will likely not agree with all conclusions of this book, but that is not the point. The point is to provoke serious public debate on matters of legitimate public concern.

    Unfortunately not everyone in British universities welcomes such free debate, and UK academics do not enjoy the protection of tenure. It says a lot about the current state of British academia that several of those who wrote to me relating experiences in their own institutions asked to remain anonymous. In the circumstances I am not going to risk getting anyone – including the two colleagues who generously read and offered many useful comments on the entire manuscript – into trouble with their employers by publicly associating them with this project. But you know who you are, and you have my profound thanks for your support.

    Derek SayerAustin, Texas1 May 2014

    1 Peter Scott, ‘Why research assessment is out of control’. Guardian, 4 November 2013. Similar disillusion (from a one-time supporter of the RAE/REF system) is expressed by Paul Harrison, ‘The perils of REF “irradiation”’. Times Higher Education, 24 April 2014.

    2 I refer to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attempts to ban Twitter and YouTube in Turkey (see ‘Turkey lifts Twitter ban after court ruling’. Guardian, 3 April 2014) and the highly controversial policy adopted by the Regents of the University of Kansas allowing tenured faculty to be dismissed for ‘improper use’ of social media, including posting materials deemed ‘contrary to the best interests of the university’ (Eric Voeten, ‘Kansas Board of Regents restricts free speech for academics’. Washington Post, The Monkey Cage blog, 19 December 2013).

    Acknowledgements

    In memory of E. P. Thompson

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