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18 May 2022

Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) have been at the forefront of the planning and implementation of REF 2021.  From the outset, the REF Equality & Diversity Advisory Panel (EDAP) viewed the exercise as an opportunity to bring about further positive cultural change across the sector.  Our key aim has been to encourage institutions to fully support their staff with equality-related circumstances so that they can thrive in their research environments.

In June, the REF Equality & Diversity Advisory Panel (EDAP) will publish its final report on supporting and promoting EDI in REF.  The report will outline the range of equality measures that were put in place in the current exercise.  It will describe how each of the measures was implemented, what the outcomes were, and reflects on the extent to which they have met their intended purpose. 

From the panel’s findings, it is clear that the REF equality measures have continued to highlight the importance of EDI in the research environment, as well as in the outcomes of research.  They have raised the level of debate and driven conversations about EDI in nominating bodies, institutions, and REF panels.  In REF 2021, we have seen significant increases in the representativeness of subject panels, and improved procedures were put in place for mitigating against potential bias in their assessments.  However, EDAP also noted that some of the equality measures, particularly the individual circumstances process, have come at a cost – both to institutions and the funding bodies.

EDAP always recognised that implementing an individual circumstances process in REF 2021 would be challenging given the decision to decouple staff and outputs.  Considerable effort was made through events and various written materials to explain the purpose of the agreed measures and to minimise unintended consequences, but with mixed success.  Overall, the process for requesting removal of the minimum of one requirement was positively received and enabled institutions to include staff whose research productivity had been disrupted by exceptional circumstances, without penalty. The unit reduction process, however, did raise a few issues, particularly in the different approaches taken by institutions. Some applied large numbers of unit reductions whereas others managed, as intended, through the flexibility provided by decoupling. Importantly though, the outputs of staff submitted with circumstances were judged by REF panels to be of equally high quality to outputs by staff submitted without circumstances. Similarly, the two-stage submission process was much appreciated by institutions, and it resulted in very high acceptance rates for reduction requests.  Moving forward, though, EDAP felt that it is time to reflect on the purpose and benefits of the REF circumstances process, and to consider what else might be done to drive positive behaviours in terms of EDI, and support staff with equality-related circumstances, without introducing unintended consequences.

Building on the current measures, EDAP reflected on whether, in any future research assessment, support for EDI might be better captured through the assessment of the research environment, thus removing or significantly reducing the cost of implementing an individual circumstances process. However, although the EDAP’s review of institutional and unit environment statements revealed much good, and some excellent, practice across the sector, it also showed that this was far from widespread.  Although many institutions had successfully implemented several gender-related initiatives, there was much less attention given to other protected groups. The panel therefore had little confidence that the majority of institutional research environments would be sufficiently mature in terms of support for EDI within the next few years to totally dispense with a circumstances process.

Clearly, much thought needs to be given to determining how EDI can best be supported in future research assessment exercises. EDAP makes a number of suggestions in their report as to how this might best be done. If implemented, these would hopefully result in a greater consistency of approach across institutions and would also notably reduce the level of burden for all those involved.

The full report will include a wide-ranging list of recommendations for those leading the planning of the next exercise. One key recommendation is that the funding bodies should agree and provide clear guidance on how EDI will be supported in the next exercise, as early as possible in the planning process.  Whatever equality measures are developed and implemented one would hope to see considerable further progress in the mainstreaming of EDI across the sector.  Researchers, units, and institutions can only thrive if there are safe and open cultures in which upholding equity and equality are paramount, and diversity and inclusion are fully encouraged and supported. 

Find out more about the other equality measures and EDAP’s findings, reflections, and recommendations when the full report is published next month.  This will also be accompanied by two webinars; one focusing on the individual circumstances process, and one on institutional support for EDI as reflected through the REF environment statements and equality impact assessments.  EDAP members will also be publishing a number of blogs on the REF website, focusing on various aspects of their work and findings, following publication of the final report.