Government Interference and Neglect of Academic Freedom: Changes to the REF

On 6th October, the period of further consultation for the Research Excellence Framework 2028 closed. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is an assessment of British Higher Education Institutions. It takes place once every seven years, and determines how much funding universities receive.  

The REF assesses universities according to how they perform on a number of differently weighted “elements”. This year, in a radical move, the REF has decided to increase the weighting of the Culture, People, and Environment (CPE) element from 15% to 25%.   

This change threatens to undermine university independence and autonomy. The CPE element assesses “behaviours within the research system”, “what is valued, recognised and rewarded”, and the general “research culture”. The greater its weighting, the greater the influence of the REF over the internal affairs of universities. The 10% boost to CPE was taken from another element, the so-called Contribution to Knowledge and Understanding, which assesses the research output of universities, in terms of academic quality only. It does not give the REF this degree of influence over the internal affairs of universities. We would do well to remember that the ultimate boss of the REF is the government’s Department for Business and Trade, which frequently intervenes to determine the content of the assessment.   

This change to the REF might be justified if it could be shown that academics were in favour of it. The REF cites a “significant minority” of academics who want to make “driving a positive research culture” a core purpose of the REF. This appears to refer to a survey in which 64 of 280 respondents (26%) thought that “research process” should be “heavily weighted” in the assessment. If this is the “significant minority”, it provides no mandate whatsoever. In the same survey, 52 respondents (19%) thought that “research process” should be “weighted less heavily” or “not assessed”. See Annex C to the Summary of Stakeholder Engagements.   

More suggestive of what has motivated the changes to the weightings is the REF’s statement:  

“The funding bodies recognise that the REF’s impact extends beyond its stated purposes and that the shape of the exercise drives behaviours within the research system, often determining what is valued, recognised and rewarded more broadly in the HE sector. The funding bodies agreed that supporting a healthy research culture should be an underpinning principle of the REF, which influences all aspects of its design and conduct.” (Initial decisions and issues for further consultation). 

This statement should worry us: it indicates that the REF, and ultimately the government, deliberately intend to influence the cultures of universities. Further, one element that might be thought essential to the culture and environment of a research institution is academic freedom. Yet the phrase “academic freedom” does not appear once in the REF’s (preliminary) description of what the CPE element will assess. The REF does, however, say that this element will assess various metrics for Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI).  

Universities have limited resources, and will spend those resources on what they are incentivised to spend them on. Anything that they are not incentivised to spend on, they are actively incentivised not to spend on. The absence of an academic freedom element in past REFs, together with an emphasis on EDI, may well partly explain why, according to a recent study, British universities spend 214 times more money on EDI than on protecting free speech.  

 If the REF is to wade in and attempt to influence the internal culture of universities, it is vital that it assesses everything that is important to that culture. What is important to a university’s research culture may include certain EDI factors. It undoubtedly includes academic freedom.