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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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This post is part of an ongoing series where I intend to develop my full personal (not institutional) response to the HE Green Paper. Comments are welcome to refine this.

The Green Paper asks in Question 24:

In light of the proposed changes to the institutional framework for higher education, and the forthcoming Nurse Review, what are your views on the future design of the institutional research landscape?

There are several areas that concern me regarding the proposed changes to the research side of higher education as a result of the proposed design of the institutional research landscape and in light of the now-published Nurse Review.

Firstly, with the proposed creation of an Office for Students, it looks as though there is to be more of a separation between teaching and research. This is potentially extremely damaging. The best higher education teaching is informed by research (and the best research is often informed by teaching). One of the outstanding aspects of British HE is that truly cutting edge and world-leading research, found at institutions of all shapes and sizes, is taught. This link is extremely important; it is what makes higher education “higher”. A set curriculum and a separation of research from teaching is not a good way to ensure the quality and uniqueness of British HE. The proposed branching of teaching into the Office for Students opposite a new umbrella Research UK organisation is troubling in a way that was never the case with HEFCE. If anything, the government needs to do more to link research and teaching, not to discourage it.

Secondly, although the Green Paper makes all the right noises about the continuation of the dual funding, I am very concerned about the housing of both streams within a single organisation (see response to question 25).

Thirdly, I am very concerned by the knock-on effects of re-housing HEFCE’s functions elsewhere. For one, the expertise of staff members at HEFCE – including David Sweeney, Steven Hill, and Ben Johnson – is extremely hard to come by. While many academics moan about REF (and it is indeed burdensome), it has been shown to be a relatively cost-effective way of distributing QR under an accountability regime, with roughly half the overhead of a research council approach. This has been achieved through careful design of the exercise by skilled thinkers. Furthermore, there are many aspects of the design of REF, under this stewardship, that are here decried as expensive, but that have forced the re-evaluation of the academy’s practices and delivered greater societal good. The impact case study elements in REF, for instance, while potentially burdensome, asked universities to articulate the social good of their research. It is also the case that, under the previous leadership of Lord Willetts, the UK has been a pioneer in open-access publishing. The disbandment of HEFCE – an entity that carries the confidence of the HE sector – potentially jeopardizes these important elements, both of which have contributed to greater public value from universities.

Fourthly, I am concerned at the signals coming out of BIS with regard to the metricisation of REF for cost-saving purposes. I note that, in the week that the Minister for HE met with Elsevier (4th November), a tender was issued (CR150082HEFCE) for a database of “robust citation data relating to institutions’ research outputs in the period 2008-2014” for which only Elsevier or Thomson Reuters could be the suppliers (the data metrics market is an effective duopoly). In response to this, HEFCE responded that “the Government wishes to consider options such as making greater use of metrics and other measures to ‘refresh’ the REF results”. This is in spite of the fact, however, that a widely-praised report (“The Metric Tide”) was issued earlier this year noting the damage that would be done by further metricising the REF and the dangers of using metrics irresponsibly. Indeed, Dr Peter Darroch, Senior Product Manager, Research Metrics at Elsevier wrote in August, 2015 that: “quantitative data inform, but do not and should not ever replace, peer review judgments of research quality – whether in the REF, or for any other purpose”. The government should avoid the false lure of the metrics siren, which will do nothing but wreck UK research upon the rocks. This is a false economy.