by Ian McNay
My thanks to Rob Cuthbert in the July issue of SRHE News for his generous comments in trailing a (possibly) forthcoming article treating TEF and, mainly, REF through a triple lens of capitalism, competition and competence in policy making and implementation. Some newer researchers may find some consolation in its history. Given that I have led workshops on ‘Getting in to print’ for SRHE, it has been a salutary and frustrating/irritating experience, for someone whose recent writing and publication has been mainly by invitation.
It started, as many articles do, in a presentation to an SRHE research seminar in the autumn of 2019. My procrastination, and demands from other work, delayed crafting that in to an article, which was submitted in early summer 2020. It took a second reviewer over 4 months to submit a report dismissing it as ‘bold and bombastic’, adding nothing to existing knowledge. The other reviewer was kinder and more constructive but the editor rejected it in October. One blow to the self-esteem, but ‘pick yourself up, dust yourself off…’. I accepted the second reviewer’s view that there was a need for a clearer message and tighter structure.
Submission of a revised version went to a different journal in early March 2021. Again, there were two reviewers. One I quote in full:
“Thank you for the opportunity to review your article. I found your argument carefully crafted and supported. It is a captivating read and throws a very strong light on the distortions created by unintended (and intended!) consequences of the ‘research game’. I think it will be very well received by an international audience, especially by those institutions wondering why their high quality research is undermined.”
The second said:
“Your topic … would be of interest to international readers, many of whom will be experiencing similar issues in their own institutions. Your conception of the article is exciting and it is well worth writing about … [it] has the potential to add to the body of knowledge and be of value to readers. However…”
They then made useful criticisms, comments and suggestions on improving it.
That was in May, with the overall judgement that it needed ‘minor modifications’; I revised and re-submitted in early June. Towards the end of July, I got a second lot of feedback, from two people not previously involved, so with no continuity of engagement. One thought it had ‘few references to specific policies or policy documents’ – 14 are cited – and needed more underpinning to support the argument and give balance. Nevertheless, they thought the article ‘an interesting one which raises important issues and deserves to be published’. The second, I again quote in full:
“Thank you for the opportunity to review your article. It packs a punch and boy, is it needed! I sincerely enjoyed your paper, reads like an express train – loved it! I think it will stir up the debate – I shall look forward to it! :)”
I submitted a slightly amended script in early August and, at the end of the month, was told there would be a final decision within two weeks. It is now October, and two referees, as well as Rob, and Rajani Naidoo, who chaired the original seminar, think highly of it. I had been worried that the latest REF results would appear before it is published, but they will now come out on May 22nd, so there is time. A dilemma – do I contact the busy editor again and risk it being seen as harassment, or wait for the process to grind through?
Briefly, on content, the use of Lisa Lucas’s ‘research game’ leads to comparisons with soccer, where the Guardian’s top 100 footballers in December had 32 who play in the English Premier league, but only 6 are qualified for England, and one for Scotland. In HE, over half of full time research students are international and according to UUK 48% of ‘research-only staff’ in 2018 were not born in the UK, where graduates are loaded with debt. As with truck drivers, we have imported to cover a lack of development (as in soccer and in county cricket), but post Brexit entry conditions, particularly visa controls and minimum salary, will reduce that possibility considerably. As with cricket, concentration on the short form, where the money is, may have prevented the development of longer form – blue skies research or five day tests – because of deadlines and targets. Rugby union coach Eddie Jones was quoted in 2018 saying that the team captain ‘can captain England with a rule of fear’.
In some HEIs, that seems to be the approach to research and the REF. One press comment on the subsequent match – defeat by France – said that the reason the team underperformed was that ‘they lacked autonomy and freedom from external control … it all feels overly managed’. Researchers, too, have lost control of the means of research production and distribution (publication). In my article a final comparison was made with the European Song Contest – not strictly a game, but a competition – where some panels tend vote for ‘people like us’ and assessment of quality gets entangled with tribal loyalty.
My elder son is also having trouble with senior managers over researchers and research students. He heads the Behavioral Neuroscience Area in a federal state university in the USA, where the comparable stipend for comparable students in other institutions within the federal university is up to 50% higher, creating low morale and difficulties in recruiting the best students, which will affect the university’s rating as a level 1 institution. Even students in the same lab have higher stipends because they are classified as STEM students, though both groups do similar work, often together. After 18 months of trying to engage with senior management, he took the decision to stop recruiting. That finally got an email response, which appeared to be simply: ‘if you do that you will have to do more undergraduate teaching’.
Finally and briefly, I anticipate that 18 months of home working will lead senior managers to try to save on estate costs and have teaching staff timetables structured to allow ‘Box and Cox’ arrangements with paired staff sharing a single desk and computer – much worse than the UEA situation reported in the recent Private Eye. There will be 2-3 days designated as ‘presentism’ days and 2-3 designated as ‘home-based’.
SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich.