Historians working in UK Higher Education will be very familiar with the ‘REF’ or Research Excellence Framework. REF is the means by which research, and the environment in which research takes place, is assessed across the higher education sector at seven-year intervals.
Work is now underway for ‘REF 2029’, led by a dedicated team reporting to the four UK Higher Education funding bodies. With it come a number of changes to the means and structure of assessment. As a result, the next REF will differ in important ways from that held in 2021.
Significant elements of the new high-level design for REF 2029 are non-negotiable. At the same time, other areas are currently under review. These were the subject of an open consultation exercise which ended in October 2023 to which the Royal Historical Society contributed a detailed response on behalf of the discipline.
In this post Barbara Bombi and Jonathan Morris–current and former chairs of the Society’s Research Policy Committee–outline those areas of REF 2029 design open to consultation and summarise the RHS response.
On 7 December 2023 the REF team released its first interim update on the consultation, with a fuller report to follow next Spring. Barbara and Jonathan conclude with the headlines from December’s update–including the pushing back of REF from its original date of 2028 to 2029.
Preparation for REF 2029 is now underway. In June 2023, the four Higher Education Funding Councils announced details of their initial ‘high-level’ decisions on the remit and structure of the next exercise. Labelled the ‘Framework Research Assessment Programme’ (FRAP), this included important changes to the 2021 REF model that are not open to further negotiation. Further details of the principal changes of this kind are available from UKRI and are summarised on the REF 2029 page of the RHS website.
Other elements of the design for REF 2029 do remain open for discussion. As part of the FRAP announcement in June 2023, submissions were invited on the form and impact of selected changes to REF 2029 prior to their finalisation in 2024.
This consultation exercise (which ran to October 2023) invited responses from individuals, departments and learned societies. The Royal Historical Society submitted a detailed consideration of these proposals following discussion with the Institute of Historical Research, the Economic History Society, Past & Present Society, and other historical societies and groups. Our thanks to these societies for their time and advice in helping to draft the response.
The funding bodies are now reviewing responses submitted in October. An interim update was published on 7 December 2023 (for more on which see below) with further comment and decisions expected by Spring 2024: for more on REF’s likely next steps, please also see below.
What elements of REF 2029 were open for consideration in the recent consultation?
The REF team’s announcement of its high-level design, in June 2023, invited responses to elements of the Future Research Assessment Programme (FRAP) that remain to be finalised. For the purposes of the consultation these were summarised by UK Research & Innovation (UKRI). Responses were invited to specific questions on aspects and anticipated outcomes of the design.
These questions related to four main categories:
- Volume Measure – primarily the proposed timetable for, and means of, calculating the volume of contributing staff to a unit of assessment; and the potential usage of these data once gathered.
- Output Submission – primarily the impact of the proposed changes for individual researchers; the consequences of allowing submissions from those on teaching-only and non-academic contracts; the suitability, or otherwise, of PGR researchers (including PhD students) being allowed to submit outputs; and the acceptable level of association of an eligible researcher to a submitting institution.
- Impact Case Studies – primarily the implications of the REF team’s decision to reduce from two to one the minimum threshold for case studies in departments of less than 9.99FTE of volume contributing staff.
- Unit of Assessment – primarily the suitability, or otherwise, of retaining the Units of Assessment (UoA) categories used in REF 2021: e.g. ‘History’, Unit of Assessment 28.
What is the Royal Historical Society’s response to this consultation?
After discussion with other learned societies and organisations, the Royal Historical Society submitted an agreed response to the FRAP proposals—available in full here—on behalf of the discipline and profession.
A brief summary of the main points in the Society’s response is provided below. Aware that many terms for a future REF are now fixed, the Society’s focus is on implementation and outcomes of confirmed or potential elements in REF 2029. The Society’s response pays particular attention to unforeseen consequences and proposals for mitigating the effects of these.
- On ‘Volume Measure’ the Society notes concern over:
- UKRI’s proposed timetable for determining volume measure for REF 2029; and that the accuracy and comprehensiveness of Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data is unsuitable to calculate volume measure.
- applications of this data and the need to establish a clear minimum threshold to establish an individual’s eligibility to submit outputs. The Society advocates this should be a minimum of 0.2FTE for a minimum of 12 months, with a minimum 0.2FTE component devoted to research allocation.
- On Output Submission the Society records its concern:
- that a break between the previous link (for REF 2021) between individual staff member and unit submission will exacerbate differences (and disparities) between staff on teaching-only and those on research or research- and teaching contracts. This will have detrimental consequences for early career historians and those at mid-career seeking to begin a major new research project; plus, those with protected characteristics and who are currently underrepresented in the discipline.
- over submission of an unlimited maximum of outputs by single individuals, which risks concentrating research in the hands of a small number of ‘star performers’.
- at the potential for exploitation arising from inclusion of outputs from those on non-academic or teaching-only contracts. It is very unlikely that these staff are currently receiving support for their research.
- the Society also opposes inclusion of output submissions by postgraduate researchers, including PhD students in REF 2029. Any move of this kind risks pressuring students into premature publication of their individual and sole-authored research.
- On Impact Case Studies the Society welcomes:
- the move to a minimum of one Impact Case Study, especially for Units of Assessment of less than 9.99FTE of volume contributing staff. This reduces a very real burden faced by smaller departments, widely discussed after REF 2021.
- the requirement for increased numbers of case studies to be submitted as volume measure increases. Within History, the Society expects a very great number of Units of Assessment to be submitting between 1 and 4 Case Studies for REF 2029 and see the proposed ratio between required ICS and FTE as proportionate.
- reintroduction of an explanatory statement on engagement activity beyond case studies; and for the minimum weight for this impact statement to be 20% of the total Engagement and Impact score, regardless of FTE of volume-contributing staff.
- On Unit of Assessment the Society does not propose a change for ‘History’. At the same time, its response:
- emphasises the importance of carrying out Unit assessments in relation to the size and type of institution. This is especially so for assessment of the ‘People, Culture and Environment’ section. Without this appreciation of relative size, it will be very difficult for small units to do well, making the argument for a single Humanities submission more plausible, to the potential detriment of the History discipline and its staff.
- notes the importance of an equivalent appreciation of the differences in size and mission between institutions, in terms of the assessment of the institutional-level statement for People, Culture and Environment. It is vital that outstanding research excellence achieved by Units in less well-resourced institutional environments is fully recognised.
What has REF said in its 7 December 2023 interim update?
The December 2023 statement provided a first response on submissions to the consultation round which closed in October 2023. The update outlined ‘the decisions and next steps that [REF] can announce now with recognition that further work is needed in some areas’. Headlines from the December update are provided below, with the full listing of and context for these decisions available here. Following initial review of the consultation exercise, the funding bodies have decided:
- the next REF will now be REF 2029, with results published in December 2029 (not 2028 as originally proposed).
- HESA data will be used to determine Volume Measure in the manner set out in the recent consultation exercise (item 71). REF acknowledges that extension of the deadline to 2029 is partly in response to the challenges faced by HEIs in using HESA data in this way.
- breaking the link between individual staff members and unit submission, including removing minimum and maximum outputs submitted by specific individuals, will go ahead as stated. However, REF states that further work is required to maximise the benefits and minimise the unintended consequences of this decision.
- REF will issue further guidance on the ‘demonstrable and substantive link’ between an eligible output and the submitting institution within the REF cycle.
- sole-authored outputs by PGR students, including PhD theses, will not be eligible for submission, nor will those produced by individuals employed on contracts with no research-related expectations.
- the overall Unit of Assessment structure for REF 2029 will remain unchanged from REF 2021.
- REF confirms that the minimum number of Impact Case Studies that an institution can submit per disciplinary submission will be reduced to one, with the removal of the 2* quality threshold. Further work is required on the thresholds for multiple case study submissions and the weighting of the accompanying statement on impact.
What happens next?
Following the 7 December update, the REF team continues to assess the 260 submissions to the FRAP consultation received in October 2023, including that from the RHS and its partners. In addition, a further consultation on the ‘People, Culture and Environment’ element of REF 2029 has been held with a closing date of 1 December 2023. Responses to this PCE consultation are not included in the 7 December update and will follow at a later date.
A recent UKRI news item provides three dates for next steps following the FRAP consultation. Writing in WonkHe (28 November 2023), Jessica Corner, Executive Chair of Research England, outlined these as:
- December 2023 – when REF will ‘announce the issues emerging from the analysis of responses to the initial consultation, and our plans to address them.’ These include: use of HESA data for calculating volume measures; impact case study requirements; eligibility of research outputs and guidance on a substantive link between research outputs and institutions; and plans concerning minimum and maximum requirements. This was made available on 7 December.
- January 2024 – when REF makes ‘further announcements concerning the People, Culture and Environment element. This will include confirmation of the successful bidder for developing indicators, alongside their work plan and timelines. We will also confirm any plans for testing and piloting the People, Culture and Environment element.’
- January 2024 – will also see the opening of a ‘consultation on REF Open Access requirements’.
- Spring 2024 – when REF 2029 will provide ‘more detail on points of policy for the forthcoming REF cycle. This will include further details on the information required to supplement submission of outputs and impact case studies. A response to the Open Access consultation is also expected at this date.’
For the latest long-term timetable for REF 2029 (2024-2029), please see the dedicated REF page on the Society’s website.
About the authors
Jonathan Morris is Director of Research Culture and Environment for the University of Hertfordshire and Research Professor in Modern European History. Between 2018 and November 2023, Jonathan was Vice-President (Research Policy) for the Royal Historical Society.
Barbara Bombi is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Kent. In November 2023 Barbara took over from Jonathan as the RHS Secretary for Research and chair of the Society’s Research Policy Committee. With Jonathan, Barbara is joint author of the Society’s response to the FRAP consultation submitted to UKRI in October 2023.