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5 November 2019

This week, we see the publication of two reports on REF panel representativeness – the Review of Nominating bodies’ E&D templates, and an Analysis of REF2021 panel membership.  The former outlines the ways in which organisations took account of equality and diversity when identifying and selecting candidates for nomination, whilst the latter provides a breakdown of panel membership by various equality characteristics in comparison to REF2014 and other relevant populations. 

In my previous blog on increasing panel representativeness, published in March 2017, I outlined the measures being put in place by the Funding Bodies to increase representativeness, and reflected on whether or not they would be sufficient to deliver the much needed change.  This week’s publication of the two reports makes it timely to revisit that question.

The review of E&D templates showed that the majority of nominating bodies did take measures to ensure that equality and diversity were duly considered in their selection processes, with a good number stating that they had done so as a result of having to complete the template.  It prompted them to reconsider their standard process.   Around 20% included one or more elements of notable good practice in their responses.  Several others stated that they had not had time to amend their process for the current round but were committed to improving their practices for the next round of nominations.  It was clear from reading the templates, however, that most interventions related to gender, with much less focus on ethnicity, and virtually no mention of other characteristics.

This focus on gender is reflected in the results of the analysis of panel membership for REF2021, with 41% of nominees and 45% of appointed panel members being female, with the latter showing a significant increase compared with REF2014 (45% vs 33%).  There was also good news in relation to disability, with 5% of appointed members in REF2021 having declared a disability, compared with 1% in REF2014.  In contrast, and disappointingly, there has only been a slight (non-significant) increase in the proportion of appointed members from BME backgrounds since 2014 (7% vs 5%). 

The increase in female representativeness, and those with a declared disability, is certainly very welcome, but there is clearly still much to be done in relation to the other protected characteristics.  In its report on the analysis of E&D templates, the REF Equality & Diversity Advisory Panel (EDAP) made a number of recommendations, both for the nominating bodies and the funding bodies, for improvements to the nomination process that could be implemented for the assessment phase for REF2021 and any future assessment exercises. 

A key recommendation for the nominating bodies was circulating the call more widely, going beyond the usual individuals, groups and seniority levels.  This is important as barriers to progression for those in certain under-represented groups (such as BME), may mean that they have the right experience without having attained the usual markers of seniority.  Other recommendations included doing more to consider the full range of protected characteristics when planning and implementing their nomination processes, and considering the diversity of the panel or set of individuals involved in the selection process. 

Recommendations for the funding bodies included reviewing the accessibility of the call for nominations and accompanying material to ensure it is fully understandable by those who are less familiar with the process, and clarifying that any organisation, association, interest or advocacy group with an interest in REF is eligible to nominate (even if they have not previously done so).  In addition, two further measures for the funding bodies were suggested in the report on the analysis of panel membership.  First, a wider group of individuals should be involved in the recommended selection of the additional panel members for REF2021 (rather than just the panel chair) and, second, the unconscious bias training offered to panels chairs when selecting members for the criteria setting phase should be extended to all those involved in the selection of additional members for the assessment phase.   

So I return to the question – will these additional measures, if implemented, be sufficient to enhance representativeness in relation to the other protected characteristics?  I would certainly hope so.  If not, then the funding bodies will need to think more radically when planning any future exercises.  For example, the nominating bodies could be given recommended targets based on the available contextual data.  Similarly, as I suggested in my previous blog, panel chairs could be given recommended targets based on the make-up of the pool of people from which the nominees have been drawn.  They could then be asked to work towards these (with others involved in the selection), and to provide a justification if they are not able to meet, or come close to, the recommended targets.  This would represent a significant change from current practice, and may well be challenging given the inevitable difficulties that arise in relation to confidentiality when working with small numbers.  However, it might well be a change worth making.