The REF “People, Culture and Environment” element to be reviewed.

The REF has announced it will review the proposed 25% weighting of its new “People, Culture and Environment” element. 

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is an assessment of British Higher Education Institutions. It determines how much funding universities receive, and is overseen (ultimately) by the government’s Department for Business and Trade. The next REF will take place in 2029. In June 2023, REF published their initial decisions on how the assessment would be conducted. This included a decision to substantially increase the weighting of the “People, Culture and Environment” element, which will now constitute 25% (up from 15%) of a university’s overall performance in the REF.  

The initial decisions of REF gave little information about what will be assessed under the People, Culture and Environment element. They stated, for instance, that the element will focus on “behaviours within the research system”, “what is valued, recognised and rewarded”, and the general “research culture”. They also stated that the element will assess metrics for Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI). There was no mention of academic freedom. 

Through the People, Culture and Environment element, the REF aims to shape, via financial incentives, the culture of universities. Thus, there is a risk that the REF may shape university culture with no reference to academic freedom. This, if it occurs, can only be to the detriment of academic freedom in universities, as resources are directed away from that and towards the select elements of university culture that the REF incentivises. CAF has previously reported on how the REF’s initial decisions on REF 2029 constitute a threat to academic freedom here

Concerns about the threat to academic freedom were raised publicly by a number of academics, for instance, in the Times Higher Education. The London University Council for Academic Freedom (LUCAF) issued a detailed response to consultation on the initial decisions, calling for the People, Culture and Environment element to include an assessment of academic freedom. There are multiple metrics on which the REF could assess levels of academic freedom. Suggested metrics include the existence of university policies on academic freedom, the existence of departmental leads on academic freedom, the public commitment of university institutions to ideological neutrality, the existence of robust policies to prevent bias in research ethics committees and funding awards, and the number of egregious infringements of academic freedom – for instance, the firing of members of staff for their beliefs.  

The REF have now published an update to their initial decisions stating that “the funding bodies will review the proposed weighting of 25%”. This review will take place “when the work developing People, Culture and Environment is more advanced”. The REF have published no update on the inclusion of academic freedom to the People, Culture and Environment element.  

If the REF is to intervene to shape university culture through the People, Culture and Environment element, then that element must assess academic freedom. Arguably, however, the use of the REF to shape university culture at all undermines the autonomy of universities, their capacity to determine their own research cultures, and thus, ultimately, academic freedom. 

It remains to be seen whether the REF 2029 will include academic freedom in its People, Culture and Environment element. Supporters of academic freedom may also hope that following review, the proposed increased weighting of People, Culture and Environment will not be implemented.