REF and the role of HR in research assessment

18 May 2022      Sophie Crouchman, Strategic Projects and Research Manager

As the REF 2021 results were published last week, I reflected on the fact that my HE career has spanned 3 research assessment exercises, writes UHR Strategic Projects Manager Sophie Crouchman in her personal reflections on the REF and the role of HR in research assessment. RAE 2008 was already in full swing when I took up my first “real job” as a Planning Officer in November 2006. I spent some of the run up to REF 2014 working at the coalface in an academic School, part of it back in Planning and part of it on maternity leave – luckily (!) returning to work 3 months before the results were published – and just in time to crunch some data.

REF2021 was a different experience entirely. Now a Senior Planning Officer, I applied to Research England to be a REF panel secretary and I was offered the role as a part-time secondment which I undertook between 2018 and 2020. Supporting 3 REF sub-panels during the criteria setting phase of REF2021 was a career highlight for me. A lot has already been said, and continues to be said, in criticism of the exercise – the processes, rules and the impact they have on HEIs. I’m not here to add to that debate. What I will say is that the people that I worked with during my secondment were simply outstanding. Every member of the sub-panels was completely committed to making the REF the best it could be, within the constraints we were operating in. Fairness, equity and efficiency were always forefront of their minds, and they took their roles very seriously. Colleagues from Research England were just as rigorous in their endeavours, alongside a cohort of talented Secretaries and Advisers drawn from HEIs across the UK. It was my absolute pleasure to work with such an amazing group of individuals. I doubt that I will ever again have the opportunity to sit in a room (this was pre-Covid I remind you!) just off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile with, arguably, some of the greatest academic minds in the UK. I felt privileged to be a part of it.

Having moved out of Planning and into a role supporting HR practitioners at UHR, I have been considering the vital role that HR teams have played in REF submissions and thinking about HR’s role in research assessment more broadly. Certainly, without HR colleagues providing staff data; identifying early career researchers; completing HESA returns and managing the individual staff circumstances process (amongst myriad other tasks), there would arguably be no REF submissions to evaluate. As burdensome as the REF submission process is – and I won’t dispute that it is, having been involved in it at my former HEI alongside the Secretary role – it also gives us a fantastic example of how Professional Services colleagues can work together with each other and with academic staff towards a shared goal. It shows that we can co-design processes and policies which deliver the REF in a way which puts people at the heart of it. And that’s the reason that HR colleagues should be a vital part of research assessment, because everything that HR does comes back to people – the people that do the research; that foster the research environment; write the outputs and impact case studies; run the REF-modellers; write the Code of Practice; keep the research equipment running and clean the labs. That’s why I think it’s important to involve HR practitioners in conversations about both what future research assessment might look like but also in the wider discussions which I know are going in most HEIs about research culture. Indeed, there have been several senior posts advertised recently with responsibility specifically for Research Culture in HEIs. I hope that these roles are designed to work closely with a broad spectrum of HR colleagues, from data analysts to organisational development professionals, because only by working together can we support the people who undertake the huge and diverse range of research which takes place at our institutions and prepare for the research assessment of the future.

Bridging the gap between the work of Research Offices and that of HR isn’t always straightforward though. Perhaps one of the ways that UHR can help is by providing a session for HR practitioners to come together and talk about REF, research culture and more in a safe space, with people who can guide you through some of the intricacies and answer your questions. We’d love to facilitate this, so please do get in touch if it’s something you’d be interested in.

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