REF: ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’

Last time round, I was a sociologist in a laboratory-based Department of Medicine. Even before the RAE peeped over the horizon I was summoned by my HofD, whom I had not yet met during the several years of his tenure, to explain who I was and what I did. He was not overly harsh, agreeing to seek advice from my peers outside my university: after all, he could not judge my worth. He suggested in passing that I become PI on a small grant, say £1m or so, and think of publishing in ‘Nature’. Further down the line, with the RAE drawing closer, and notwithstanding positive input from a respected peer, I received an email from the university saying my record in ‘non-hospital-based clinical subjects’ (I think it was) was not strong enough and I would not be returned. I replied that I was equally inept at radio astronomy and music: I was a sociologist. I insisted that I either be sent a letter saying that I was not to be returned for strategic reasons, and that my record of work was in fact strong, or be returned to my own panel in ‘sociology’. The latter option was ruled out because my university does not have a Department of Sociology. The eventual compromise was that I be returned with a referral across to the sociology panel. I was, and remain, an anomaly, a sociologist in a medical school.

As the REF looms ever closer I am aware that a number of excellent and productive sociologists find themselves similarly disadvantaged. I know of friends and colleagues with enviable international reputations who have never been returned. Sometimes their Heads of Department do not understand what they do, or even why; sometime they are being forced into panels that are inappropriate; sometimes they are simply being discarded or left in a ‘dustbin’ category of miscellaneous, comprising the ‘research inactive’. Occasionally too, their work is being written off because theoretical output or ethnographic or qualitative research is beyond the ken of ignorant or dismissive line managers. I know of one colleague who was told in all seriousness that her work was ‘too scholarly’. RCTs or nothing, thank you very much.

The REF is doubtless a serious attempt on the part of serious-minded individuals to deliver a metric that affords a valid measurement of academics’ accomplishments and is therefore fair. But there are problems with and unintended consequences of this project:

  • it is intrinsically flawed, no such simple metric being possible;
  • it allows for over- and under-estimating academic worth (a number of past Nobel Prize Winners would not have met the REF submission requirements or those of their institutions);
  • it cannot handle anomalies, like sociologists in medical or dental schools;
  • it is open to abuse by universities, who rather than use discretion, can and do use the REF as a management device;
  • it exercises a corrosive surveillance over the research of academics many years in advance of its deadlines (by rating total research revenue over its products, and productivity in high impact journals over the contents of papers).

University authorities will reply that it is a game they cannot afford not to play. If vice-chancellors opposed it collectively of course, it would be game that was no longer played. But most line-managers feel stuck with the likes of the REF. They are charged then to insist on and use discretion. If they do not exercise discretion, if for example they abandon or maliciously define first-rate sociologists in medical schools as under-achievers, then they are guilty of symbolic violence. They are jeopardizing their careers and should be held to account. As has been made clear to me by senior management at my own university, which happens to have no Department of Sociology (and therefore no institutional return to the sociology panel), there is no excuse for not referring a sociologist to the sociology panel.

Historically, I have always had to fight my corner, but clearly numerous sociologists – and I know many others from across the full range of disciplines who find themselves in similarly anomalous positions, or for example teachers rather than researchers – are worse off than I have been. My university listened before the last RAE even if I had to shout loudly at it. I am aware that other universities, or their component parts, are not listening. It may feel like swimming against an irresistible tide, and it may be easy for me to say on the verge of retirement, but mechanisms like the REF must not be allowed to nudge scholarship into subservience. The REF may be an imprudent initiative, but it is also a calculated means to calculated ends; and those ends are to be found in a general re-commodification of higher education. But this is all basic sociology.

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