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24 June 2022

A key aim of the REF circumstances process was to minimise any potential negative impact on the research careers of staff whose productivity had been impacted by equality-related circumstances.  So, following the publication of EDAP’s final report last week, it is timely to ask how successful this part of the exercise has been.  What were the benefits and what were the costs, and did the former outweigh the latter?

Overall, the two-stage submission procedure was successful as it resulted in very high acceptance rates for reductions for staff circumstances that were applied at the submission deadline.  Furthermore, 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. As far as the specific mechanisms for requesting reductions were concerned, the process for removing the minimum of one output requirement was positively received by institutions as it enabled staff whose research had been disrupted by exceptional circumstances to be included without penalty. In contrast, however, the unit reduction process raised several concerns.

EDAP always recognised that developing and implementing an individual circumstances process, particularly the unit reduction process, would be challenging given the decision to decouple staff and outputs. Considerable efforts were made through events and various written materials to explain the purpose of the process and to try to minimise unintended consequences.  However, this clearly played out differently in different institutions. Some applied large numbers of unit reductions whereas others managed, as intended, through the flexibility provided by decoupling. Interestingly, though, there was no clear effect of institution type or size, nor discipline. Additional concerns about the unit reduction process were raised in the Staff Circumstances reports submitted by institutions at the end of the exercise.  Several commented on the process being difficult to explain to staff.  It also resulted in some staff being unhappy about declaring sensitive circumstances which were not then submitted to REF, as a unit reduction request was not deemed to be necessary. The widespread use of the circumstances process in some institutions could be interpreted as bringing the focus back on the individual staff member, encouraging them to declare circumstances as a way of justifying a lower output rate than other colleagues, thus going against the principle of decoupling. It was also apparent from some of the Staff Circumstances reports that a few institutions were still requiring staff to produce a set number of outputs for submission to the unit’s output pool, again showing that staff and outputs were still very much linked. It would be helpful for staff and outputs to be further decoupled in the next exercise.

The REF circumstances process clearly comes at a cost, to institutions, the funding bodies and, unfortunately, in some cases individuals, for whom outlining details of certain circumstances might be difficult and / or distressing. Despite this, EDAP felt that the process was beneficial overall, helping institutions to drive forward their inclusivity and wellbeing agendas.  Several institutions commented in their Staff Circumstances reports that they became aware of individual staff circumstances that they were previously unaware of, so were then able to provide much-needed support. However, EDAP also felt that it is time to step back and reflect on the purpose of the circumstances process in the context of the wider purposes of REF, and to consider what else might be done to drive positive behaviours in supporting staff with equality-related circumstances, without introducing unintended consequences. The panel recommended that any future process should be a more slimmed down version than the current one, with a significant reduction in burden for all involved. They suggested that the balance needs to shift with the environment template being remodelled so that it better recognises and captures good practice in equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), with reductions for circumstances focusing on individuals and units most in need of support.

So, how might this be achieved?  If the funding bodies continue to require staff to have an eligible output to be entered into a future exercise, then a process for requesting removal of this requirement would still be needed.  Given that ECR status and parental leave accounted for a substantial majority of circumstances requests, a possible approach could be to obtain that information from existing HR records, with only more complex circumstances requiring separate declaration, thus considerably reducing the burden for all involved as well as increasing consistency of approach. Obtaining staff consent for their circumstances to be included in any submission to REF could be built into the procedure.

As far as unit reductions are concerned, these need to be limited to where they are most needed, such as small units, particularly in disciplines where papers are not the primary mode of output, where staff circumstances have the greatest impact. The classification of a unit as ‘small’ could be determined statistically, and a single consistent definition of disproportionality could be provided as part of the initial guidance.

Whatever processes are put in place, it is important that the sector receives clear guidance on how EDI will be supported and assessed in the next exercise (whatever shape it takes) as soon as possible to enable institutions to have the right mechanisms in place.