After the UK REF, the IREF…the Intergalactic Research Excellence Framework


For the last couple of decades, exercises to assess the extent to which university research is excellent have been all the rage. The UK led the way with the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) to be followed by Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong among others. With the passage of time, increasing amounts of research funding tend to be allocated on the basis of the results of these exercises and, so important have they become to individual universities, these exercises now drive the research cycle in the same way as national or general elections drive the economic cycles of individual states.

Over time, the standards required to hit the top of the rankings have increased (in terminological terms if not absolutely). In the 1992 and 1996 RAEs in the UK, for example, standards were set in terms of ‘attainable levels of national (and) international excellence’. By 2001, the concept of the ‘star’ ratings of the top rating had evolved thus dividing submissions achieving a 5 into 5 and 5*. Seven years later, national and international excellence had been joined by ‘world-leading’. I joked then that the next stage had to be the search for research that was intergalactic in terms of its excellence. Today an email arrived in my inbox which brought my vision just a little bit closer. It was from the English higher education funding council, HEFCE. It read:

“Views on an international REF invited

HEFCE has published a survey inviting views on an internationalised system of research assessment.

This survey forms part of a project exploring the benefits and challenges of expanding the UK’s research assessment system, the Research Excellence Framework (REF), on an international basis. At the broadest level, this means an extension of the assessment to incorporate submissions from universities overseas.

This follows an invitation earlier this year from the then Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts, for HEFCE to provide an opinion on the feasibility of an international REF. The project belongs in a wider context of international interest in the exercise, on which HEFCE frequently provides information and advice to higher education policymakers and university senior management from overseas.

Responses are invited from any organisation or individual with an interest in higher education research or its assessment. The survey will be open until Wednesday 12 November 2014.

To complete the survey visit: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/refinternationalisation

Having been involved in all the UK RAEs between 1992 and 2008, I shall of course be responding and I shall be claiming  prescience and IPR (as well as research impact points for the Australian ERA exercise to which I am now beholden in my current job in that country) should the outcome of the consultation be what I am about to propose.

I propose that the next move should not be an international REF. Let us not be timid. Let us go for broke. Let us aim for the stars and institute an Intergalactic Research Excellence Framework where all universities in the Milky Way are judged one against the other by a jury drawn directly from the Gods of Yore ( (c) Olympus and Valhalla) and the League of Superheros ( (c) Marvel Comics), the outcomes of this exercise in terms of grades awarded to be:

  1. Awe-inspiring
  2. Earth-shattering
  3. Stellar
  4. Better than beyond the edge of the Universe
  5. Completely out of sight, AND
  6. Completely out of sight*
  7. Completely out of sight (binary*)

In order to be funded, research achievement has to be ‘stellar’ and in the case of a dispute about the borderline between  ‘Completely out of sight’, ‘Completely out of sight*’ and ‘Completely out of sight (binary*)’, the adjudicator should be the Ghost of James Brown

I shared this proposal with a colleague and he suggested a refinement (thanks Mike), ‘the results would have to be benchmarked against the other galaxies in the universe – let’s see whether Andromeda is interested in helping with providing some benchmarking data’

Remember…you heard it here first…and remember, the sky’s the limit…

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