02
Sep
11

babies and research excellence

Some disturbing news from our masters at HEFCE, the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Every 5-6 years, all UK higher education institutions are assessed by HEFCE in a process called the Research Excellence Framework, known to friends as the REF. Each institution has to show how good it has been in producing ground-breaking research, looking after postgraduate students who will produce the ground-breaking research of the future, and making society a better place.

To evaluate their ground-breaking-ness, each academic member of staff has to present up to four ‘outputs’ they produced in the past 5-6 years (book, article, exhibition); these are assessed by a devoted panel of fellow academics, who then grade them, between zero (work that falls  that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work) and four (world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour).  Most people have to produce four such outputs, but people who work part-time or have only just joined the university (early career researchers) are allowed to submit fewer items, given that they are (quite reasonably) assumed to have had less time than their colleagues to research, write and curate exhibits.

So far so good (?) but HEFCE’s latest consultation document throws up some considerable challenges for academics who have the temerity to have children.  It appears to suggest that no allowance will be made for maternity leave in deciding how many items should be submitted by a researcher, unless the leave lasted over 14 months.  See paragraphs 49-56 in the consultation document – especially Para 59 and table 2.
Bearing in mind that very few people are allowed to, want to, or can afford to, take 14 months maternity leave,  women who have had babies in the past 5-6 year REF cycle will have to submit four items like everyone else. The implication here is that they have been able to achieve the same research output as colleagues – which seems pretty ambitious to anyone who has been, or knows someone who has been, pregnant or the parent of infants.

As it stands, the draft proposal would seem to present a seriously discouraging picture to academics, or those who may be thinking of becoming academics. The HEFCE proposal is far out of line with our friends at the ERC, who extend the window of eligibility for their Starter Grants by 18 months per child born; this is thought to reflect the level of disruption to research. It also contrasts dismally with recent efforts made elsewhere, for example to bring in more women onto UK corporate boards, see the 30% club for example. Indeed, the HEFCE proposal is difficult to reconcile with HEFCE’s own aims to “support equality and diversity in research careers” and “encourage institutions to submit all their eligible staff who have produced excellent research” with fewer than four outputs if circumstances “have significantly constrained [staff's] ability to produce four outputs or to work productively throughout the assessment period” (paragraph 47).

The HEFCE document isn’t, however, entirely clear. It notes (paragraph 62) that an alternative approach could be adopted to take account of pregnancy and maternity: that staff who had periods of maternity leave during the REF assessment period may reduce the number of outputs by one for each discrete period of maternity leave, without penalty in the assessment. “This alternative approach is based on the view that each period of maternity leave, and any associated constraints on work, is generally sufficiently disruptive of an individual’s research work to merit the reduction of an output”. That sounds more like it.

My view is that the fairest way to take into account maternity leave would be to allow those who have taken it during the last REF cycle to submit a reduced number of inputs, in line with the reduction allowed to Early Career Researchers (reduction in inputs is in linear relation to  months away from work).

Let HEFCE know what you think of the proposal and its alternative. The consultation is open until 5 October 2011.

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8 Responses to “babies and research excellence”


  1. September 2, 2011 at 10:54

    The REF-type of exercise is always badly flawed, like all bureaucratic processes, with many unfortunate, unintended consequences. But this 14 month business is gross !
    Ounce again, the bureaucrats – and academics – behind such rules are most likely (old) male caucasian people
    Georges
    IMD Professor
    http://www.imd.ch

  2. 2 Anne
    September 2, 2011 at 20:38

    Is there scope for the Slow Science movement? http://www.pauljorion.com/blog/?p=27864
    “Ça a commencé comme ça. Une poignée de collègues issus de disciplines différentes, l’envie de travailler ensemble, un financement de cinq ans, des séminaires réguliers où le plaisir d’échanger se mêlait à un sentiment grisant de progression et, au final, des objets d’étude, des rencontres et des résultats qui dépassaient de loin nos attentes initiales. Une belle histoire de recherche, en somme, pour une petite communauté regroupant des académiques, des doctorants et des étudiants…. Le groupe n’avait pas en commun que des objectifs scientifiques. Il partageait aussi une conception de la recherche et des relations entre chercheurs centrée sur la convivialité, l’intelligibilité, l’échange et la volonté de bien faire son travail. Rien de révolutionnaire à première vue. Mais le décalage avec les politiques de recherche développées par nos institutions nationales et internationales était pourtant flagrant. Il y avait loin, en effet, entre ces valeurs et les injonctions de productivité, de rentabilité et d’immédiateté inlassablement ressassées par nos managers académiques”

  3. 4 Richard
    September 2, 2011 at 21:06

    I can’t imagine this will ever be finalised with the 14-month rule. Thinking from a cynical viewpoint, perhaps HEFCE have deliberately planned to cause a storm and then be publicly seen to give way, thereby allowing themselves to claim a “genuine consultation exercise”. In any event, this is a poorly drafted proposal – and it is worth commenting that many academics (of my acquaintance) in the sciences and other disciplines have recently been searching to leave the UK, partly as a result of the recent government cuts to research funding. This ill-conceived proposal will not help matters.

  4. 5 ach
    September 8, 2011 at 12:43

    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=416813&c=1

    The THES story in the link above is pertinent, but since it appears to have been written without knowledge of the 14-month rule it comes across as surprisingly optimistic. Nonetheless, by addressing the question of maternity leave and the REF through another viewpoint – that of HEFCE and of universities’ obligations under equality legislation – it does make me agree with the various commentators who have said that the proposal in its current shape simply cannot reasonably go through.
    “The Higher Education Funding Council for England, which manages the REF on behalf of all the UK funding councils, hopes that the moves to strengthen its measures to “promote equality and diversity in research careers”, will redress concerns about lower rates of submission for eligible female, black and disabled staff in the 2008 research assessment exercise.”
    “David Sweeney, Hefce’s director of research, innovation and skills, said that the issue of selection for submission could be further sharpened in the 2014 exercise if universities decided to submit significantly fewer academics than they had to the 2008 RAE on the expectation, which he declined to confirm, that Hefce would confine funding to three-star (internationally excellent) and four-star (world-leading) research”

  5. 6 ach
    October 13, 2011 at 20:25

    The LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog which reproduced my posting (here) elicited a response from HEFCE. There has also since then been a statement on HEFCE’s ill-conceived consultation document from the The Feminist and Women’s Studies Association.
    I even made it onto the twittersphere!

    Update 9 Dec 2011
    LSE Impact of Social Sciences tell me that post was viewed over 530 times, making it into their top 25 most popular posts of the year.


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