In Times Higher Education earlier this week, Ian Pace wrote that in university music departments, there is “a big question” about whether the kind of "research" that the Research Excellence Framework venerates “is really what their academics ought to be prioritising”, and he suggests specifically including “practice” within the REF’s purview. As director of research at an art and design specialist university, I agree with some, though not all, of what he says.
My university, too, has to wrestle with the relationship between practice-based research and the REF, and whether the influence of REF criteria on academics and their teaching is a benign or malign one.
The REF is not intrinsically hostile to practice research, as Pace notes. It is flexible and open, and to a greater extent than any previous UK research assessment, REF 2021 has fully accommodated diverse types of research output. For non-textual outputs, it has given more – and more useful – guidance on what should be submitted, and how. The “supporting contextual information” that is invited for certain output types has been better defined, in form and purpose. Administrative burden, however, is another issue. Assembling that supporting contextual information is infinitely more labour and time-intensive than entering the DOI of a journal paper.
Pace notes that even where the REF itself is “flexible and pluralistic”, universities play it safe in the outputs they select. My university has done a good and confident job of presenting our practice research outputs; there was nothing in the REF guidance that inhibited or constrained this. Our policy was to let practice-based research of all forms assume its natural proportions within our submission, reviewing the available outputs regardless of their type, and selecting on quality. That said, selecting an output for inclusion in the REF does involve not just making a judgement per se but also predicting the future judgements that REF panel members might make. And the element of subjectivity that peer-review assessment brings does create some temptation to go for more conservative choices – and perhaps this issue is more acute for practice research than for some other types.
Are the criteria (for outputs, “rigour”, “originality” and “significance”) at fault? It is not always as easy for a researcher in sculpture, for instance, to clearly signal the “rigour” in their work as it is for a historian writing a monograph or a social scientist a journal paper. Is the list of criteria long enough – and what could we add that would also serve as a fitting rubric on which to judge research across all panels and units of assessment? Creativity, perhaps? Or value for money? Art and design researchers, who can’t always leverage big research council awards, are experts at doing a lot with modest resources.
Beyond the REF, we grapple with the issue of criteria for our practice-based PhD researchers. They need to be given the space to forefront their practice, which is not always easy when their examiners almost always get to read the thesis first in the examination process.
Pace argues that the REF pushes academics towards the sort of research that is a safe bet for research assessment – music that is avant-garde and arcane – but not what their students want to know about. I don’t recognise this critique in art and design, however. I have colleagues whose photographic practice or curatorial endeavours, for instance, are clear embodiments of rigorous process and new knowledge but are also absolutely what their students need and want to learn about. In film and animation, the more experimental creations of some academic researchers are not cut off from the concerns of more mainstream or commercial approaches but serve to expand and fertilise them.
REF 2021’s requirement for everyone with “significant responsibility for research” to be submitted has required many universities to clearly address who does research and who is focused on other areas of enhancement. This distinction is important. Even if academic research-responsible tutors can’t supply students with live examples of the more mainstream application of industry-relevant skills, role models can be provided by colleagues whose work is squarely industry-focused and who are not under any pressure to align their work with research. The same is true of the technical tutors whose excellent pedagogy is increasingly recognised.
The Research Excellence Framework is just that, a framework. As long as universities don’t let it become the only measure of what they do and how they do it, it serves its purpose. It is complex, burdensome, bureaucratic, irritating and somewhat limited in its conception of what is good research. However, it is, ultimately, reasonably fair and reasonably sound – for practice-based research as much as for any other sort of research.
Victoria Kelley is director of research at the University for the Creative Arts.
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