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University professors, REF, and the game that is coming to an end …?

April 3rd, 2013 by Cristina Costa

This week, Times Higher Education published an article about the salaries of University Professors. The article entitled Professorial pay rises twice as fast as rest points out that professors’ salaries have risen considerably more than salaries in other academic grades. The article attributes this phenomenon to the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF); an exercise that aims to assess the “quality of research in UK higher education institutions”.

Treino 04.06.2012

“Players moving teams” – CC photo by Flickr ID clubeatleticomineiro/

For people in Academia this is not really news. In the past year or so we have seen how fiercer the game has become and how institutions are competing for the “best” senior academics, which in REF terms, or better said, the interpretations institutions make of it, means to hire individuals with numerous publications in high rank journals, an outstanding and successful record of research grants, and, if possible, evidence of how their research can demonstrate impact.

For those who trawlled job websites in the past year or so, as I have done, it was impossible not to notice that the ” the hunt for the professor” was on. Several institutions promoted their daring, million pound strategies, appealing for the “brilliant minds”  of the world to join their departments or schools. It almost felt as if they were playing at FIFA level. Players moving from one team to the other with the wealthier teams acquiring the best, hence more expensive players.  The trend has got so big that even other academic posts suffered from the same influence as the job specifications got more ambitious.

But the effects of REF are not only felt in research as one of the areas of academic activity. The focus on REF inevitably forces academia to differentiate between the importance it places on research and the one it puts on teaching, engagement and widening participation  (other elements of scholarship). And, I’d dare say, that as a side effect, it discourages the innovation of practices. In this sense, Digital Scholarship still has a long way to go. Will it ever prevail in the presence of exercises such as REF? … I hope it will. I think it will. But I think it will take time and effort to influence policy.

People say teaching and other areas of scholarship will get the prominence they deserve once we get through this exercise. I also think this will be the case… for Early Career Researchers this is already  the case. [ There, now you know how I managed to get the new job… research was not the only item that weighed on their decision to hire me, and so I am enjoying a very friendly environment where people are supporting my teaching, research and knowledge exchange. I am very happy to have landed in such a supportive environment.]

My concern however is that once REF comes around again in 5 years time we might still be focusing on publications as the main measure of research quality. If HEIs are supposed to be incubators of innovation and centres of expertise for the knowledge economy, shouldn’t our digital activity count too?

As pointed out in my research – here comes the PhD again! –  institutions shy away from supporting digital scholarship because their interpretation of research exercises such as REF does not privilege digital scholarship. Hence, it becomes very easy for institutions to default to classic forms of producing and communicating research. One can argue this “preserves” practices. Yet, that has never been the role of academia. The role and duty of academia is to advance knowledge and inform practice to improve and influence the current society.

Translated into Bourdieuian language this means that the strategies adopted by the field (in this case, institutions) to be at the top of their game (in this case, to acquire as much  symbolic capital as they can in the form of prestige and economic capital, i.e., power)  seek to standardise the practices of scholars so they can be measured by the benchmarks institutions stipulate as research excellence based on the interpretations they make of the exercises (REF in this case) to which they submit their research. This means that the habitus of digital scholars have little chance of becoming established practices, despite of it offering pragmatic answers to questions posed by speeches concerned with the digital and knowledge economy. I fear that the innovative approaches digital scholars are exploring for the creation and dissemination of  knowledge  will have little effect in the years to come if future exercises such as REF do not take the habitus of digital scholars seriously and see them as meaningful practices making a significant contribution to the real world.

So my question is: what can we do to make sure that exercises such as REF become aware of, and pro-actively support, digital practices?

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