People holding a banner that reads: 'The university is a factory' in the UCU pensions strike, London

Many academics regard the Research Excellence Framework as a performance-management tool. But there will be risks to universities’ financial autonomy if it is abolished.Credit: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Shutterstock

It was the day most UK academics were dreading. On Monday 17 February, funding agencies fired the starting gun on the next Research Excellence Framework (REF 2021), the United Kingdom’s system for evaluating research quality.

Universities have until 27 November to submit their researchers’ outputs to the REF. These will then be graded by review panels on a scale of 1 to 4 — the highest score meaning that the work is deemed “world leading” in its originality, significance and rigour.

A lot is riding on the outcome because funders use the results to allocate around £2 billion (US$2.6 billion) in annual research funding to university departments. Most institutions will want to see their academics graded in the top two bands, because lower-performing departments are unlikely to get much money at all.

The exercise is valuable in providing public accountability for research spending while protecting universities’ financial autonomy. But many researchers and research managers are wondering whether REF 2021 could be the last.

Many would not mourn the REF’s demise. By coincidence, from 20 February thousands of UK academics will be on strike for 14 days, calling for better pay and more-secure pensions. The constant monitoring of performance that comes with research evaluation is also mentioned by academics as a source of stress and anxiety.

The REF is also not cheap to administer — the 2014 exercise cost around £246 million. And as with most indices, the REF’s overlords keep having to make changes to prevent it from being gamed. In the past, departments were able to achieve high scores by submitting outputs from a fraction of their best-performing staff — something that is no longer allowed.

Universities that obtain the most REF-based funding are concentrated in London and southeast England, and this has fuelled arguments that the metric’s funding formula helps to reinforce the UK’s regional imbalance. That alone could be an argument for radical reform from a government looking to level up funding to other parts of the United Kingdom.

That said, the REF’s critics need to be careful what they wish for, because the framework protects money that universities rely on to pay salaries andto keep the lights on. The government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson is also looking to cut funding from publicly funded bodies that have operated largely autonomously from the state — including the national broadcaster, the BBC. Moreover, proposals for research funding reforms are widely expected this year.

A bonfire of the REF might well appeal to many, but not if the outcome leads to cuts, or reduced autonomy for institutions. There could be a wiser option: adjust the REF’s funding formula so that money for the best work is distributed more fairly across the United Kingdom.