REF II: … If the REF is crazy, why does it exist?

In the last post I argued that the Research Excellence Framework (REF) has a low ratio of useful information to deadweight costs. If that’s true, why would it exist?

Lots of crazy stuff exists. The Common Agricultural Policy, for example. The reasons why are often similar.

  1. The invisibility of costs. Anybody who’s ever taught Economics 101 knows that while most people understand financial costs, people struggle with opportunity costs[1]. It’s hard to imagine the road not taken, the research not done, the cures for cancer left undiscovered because researchers were too busy prepping for the REF (tho some manage). This is a major reason why loads of stuff exists – because people never compare the full benefits with the full costs – and costs in particular often remain, in Cass Sunstein’s words “off screen”.
  2. Education, competition and deadweight costs. Worse still, our education system trains us to think that wasteful competition is normal. Schooling consists to a large extent of zero-sum competition and signalling behaviour[2]. And academics never left school (similarly our government subsidises adult PE classes for genetically fortunate sporting ‘heroes’ to waste their energy and talent trying to run around a track slightly faster than the next person). Most academics weren’t budding Jessica Ennis-Hills, but we probably came pretty near the top of the class in our subjects most of the time – we won the competition! (Despite the fact that we’ve no use for most of the knowledge learned and forgotten along the way). We’ve been trained to think that zero sum games with deadweight costs are how the world should work, and that anybody who questions that is signalling that they can’t win the game.
  3. Status quo bias. Once you’ve got a REF, or a CAP, the path of least resistance is to keep repeating more or less the same thing again and again. Simple, unsexy explanation for why crazy stuff keeps happening.
  4. Corporations vs individuals. University managers like the REF because it strengthens management over individuals. Whereas grants are effectively won and spent by inter-university coalitions of individual academics, REF money comes to the institution, and is management’s to spend. Of course, that would be true if REF money remained a separate pot, distributed according to departmental grant earning, but it helps explain why there is a pot of QR money there which needs doling out in the first place. And if QR money were just doled out in proportion to grants, people might start to question why there was a separate pot! Why not just give it to the research councils to share out? This is dangerous talk.

This is not an exhaustive list. I’m sure there are other reasons, in particular I suspect that the patronage networks created by the REF have something to do with it (though academia is of course rife with patronage, with or without the REF).

[1] Heck, even economists seem to have trouble: Indeed it’s tempting to observe that many academics seems to have a weak understanding of opportunity costs, which may explain their chaotic inability to manage their workload



2 thoughts on “REF II: … If the REF is crazy, why does it exist?”

  1. One important reason for the RAE, which became the REF, is that the HEFCE needed a transparent funding mechanism that could be used to put old and new universities on the same financial footing.

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