Consultation Response: Assessment of people, culture and environment in REF 2028

This response has been prepared by the London Universities’ Council for Academic Freedom (LUCAF), which is an academic-led and non-partisan organisation committed to supporting academic freedom. We are responding to the invitation to provide written comments on the assessment of people, culture and environment in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2028. Our response has been signed by many additional individual academics, listed below.

Among the most significant changes announced in the initial decisions for REF 2028 is the proposal for a people, culture and environment element that will contribute 25% of the overall quality profile (up from 15% in 2021) and be expanded to include research culture. Because the REF determines a significant part of university funding, it is a powerful tool shaping the incentives that universities face. The initial decisions report provides little detail on how UKRI intend to assess research culture beyond various general indicators such as equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) data and data on career progressions. However, paragraph 42 of the initial decisions report references the UKRI-commissioned “Harnessing the Metric Tide” report for examples of data and evidence requirements that could be included in this element.

The Harnessing report was critical of the concept of excellence itself as “ill-defined” and together with the original Metric Tide report, it recommended “the adoption of indicators that support equality and diversity as a counterweight” to what it viewed as problematic aspects of research excellence assessment. It cited approvingly critiques centred on “the biases inherent in the concept of excellence” which sustain “epistemic injustice”. We are concerned by the adoption of concepts from critical social justice epistemology which conflict with the principle that merit must be the key metric to assess academic work. We believe that these recommendations may lead to a politicisation of science by incentivising universities to entrench contested versions of EDI, leading to a loss of public trust in our universities. Academic freedom and freedom of belief may be undermined by EDI promotion of particular perspectives, leading to a failure to uphold the Equality Act 2010. The proposed changes also risk decentring academic rigour and increasing performative EDI work while neglecting wider issues which affect research culture, including equalities issues.

Academic freedom is integral to research culture as it allows appropriate challenges to ill-conceived even if well-intentioned orthodoxies, promotes debate, encourages heterodox ideas and ensures regular critical engagement with research, an integral part of academic self-regulation. It is strongly correlated to the quantity and quality of innovative output. Yet the phrase “academic freedom” does not appear once in the preliminary assessment description of the people, culture and environment element, nor in the Harnessing the Metric Tide report.

There is evidence that research studies that run counter to the narrative of critical social justice are commonly censored or suppressed by publishers. Williams & Ceci (2023) have identified lack of political diversity as a key factor leading to ideological bias in social science research. Academic freedom is a powerful bulwark against ideological suppression of research and entrenchment of one-sided perspectives. It is therefore vital that academic freedom is explicitly centred in the evaluation of research culture and environment. If not embedded in the REF, there is a clear danger that academic freedom will fall further down the list of university priorities despite the legal duties imposed by the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023.

There are concrete proposals that universities should consider to promote academic freedom. For example, Sullivan & Suissa (2022) suggest that all university policies should be assessed to ensure their alignment with both academic freedom and equality legislation. The law firm Doyle Clayton provides a practical checklist for universities seeking to be compliant with the UK law on academic freedom, such as reviewing recruitment and promotion policies. The Best Free Speech Project has released detailed statements on how universities in England can comply with academic freedom aspects of legislation. The Princeton Principles set out standards and recommendations to cultivate free and vigorous inquiry, such as maintaining institutional neutrality on contested topics in order to avoid establishing an orthodox view.

We recommend that UKRI include indicators for the active promotion of academic freedom as an integral part of the assessment of research culture. These may include, for example, asking each university or department to answer questions such as whether it has an academic freedom lead, whether staff and students are offered training on the practice of constructive disagreement, whether policies around research ethics and funding approvals adequately protect against ideological policing, and whether there exist robust policies on institutional neutrality and a Code of Practice protecting against all attempts to constrain academic freedom.

We also suggest that the UKRI reconsider the proposal to increase the weighting of the people, culture and environment element to 25%. As explained above, the increased weighting carries significant risks around the politicisation of research and scholarship, which would undermine research culture and academic freedom. The UKRI initial decisions report states that “A significant minority of respondents to the consultation suggested that driving a positive research culture should be a core purpose of the REF.” This statement appears to be based on a small survey in which 64 out of 248 respondents (26%) said that “research process” should be heavily weighted in the REF. In the same survey, 52 respondents (21%) thought that “research process” should be “weighted less heavily” or “not assessed”. So it is not clear if the UKRI consultation actually supports the increasing the weighting of this element so significantly.

Rewarding institutions for reducing bureaucracy and implementing appropriate light-touch ethical approval might enjoy broad support. However, it is unclear from the current proposals whether these factors would be included in the research culture assessment. Ultimately, the best measure of an effective research culture is the production of excellent research. Lowering the weighting of the people, culture and environment element would allow for the excellence of research outputs to continue to account for the majority of the overall quality profile.

In summary, we would recommend the following:

  1. Include the active promotion of academic freedom as part of the assessment criteria for the “people, culture and environment” element in REF 2028.
  2. Lower the weighting of the “people, culture and environment” element.

Document date: 22/11/2023


Professor Abhishek Saha
Professor of Mathematics, Queen Mary University of London

Dr John Armstrong
Reader in Financial Mathematics, King's College London

Stephen P. Jenkins
Professor of Economic and Social Policy, LSE

Professor Lucinda Platt OBE
Professor of Social Policy, LSE

Dr Prakash Shah
Reader in Culture and Law, Queen Mary, University of London

Professor Martin Anthony
Professor of Mathematics, London School of Economics

Professor Alice Sullivan
Professor of Sociology, UCL Social Research Institute

Professor Lee Jones
Professor of Political Economy and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London

Professor Stephen Warren
Professor of Astrophysics, Imperial College London

Dr. Asen Ivanov
Reader in Economics, Queen Mary University of London

Professor Sir Bernard Silverman FRS
Emeritus Professor of Statistics, University of Oxford

Professor Claudio D Stern FMedSci FRS
University College London

Professor Yan V Fyodorov
King's College London

Michelle Shipworth
Associate Professor in Energy & Social Science, University College London

Professor Peter Ramsay
Professor of Law, London School of Economics and Political Science

Dr Adrian Hilton
Honorary Research Fellow, University of Buckingham

Professor Alun Hughes
University College London

Professor Bianca L De Stavola
Professor of Medical Statistics, UCL

Professor Lesley Gourlay
University College London

Prof Andrew Tettenborn
Professor of Commercial Law, Swansea University

Dr Shereen Benjamin
Senior Lecturer in Primary Education, University of Edinburgh

Professor Berkay Ozcan
Professor of Social and Public Policy, LSE

Professor Tim Hayward
University of Edinburgh

Professor Alex Bremner
Professor of Architectural History, University of Edinburgh

Dr. Saladin Meckled-Garcia
University College London

Professor Emeritus John MacInnes FAcSS CStat
Professor Emeritus University of Edinburgh

David de Meza Eric Sosnow professor of management
London School of Economics

Professor David Collins
Professor of International Economic Law, City, University of London

Dr Alison McClean
University of Bristol

Professor Timothy C. Bates Ph.D.
Professor of Individual Differences in Psychology, University of Edinburgh

Professor Jonathan Hearn
University of Edinburgh

Professor N. P. Franks FMedSci, FRS
Professor of Biophysics and Anaesthetics, Imperial College

Janaína Heloísa Telles de Lima
Universidad de Alcalá (UAH)

Dr. Alexander Weiss
Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of Edinburgh

Dr Vanessa Pupavac
Senior Lecturer, University of Nottingham

Dr Eva Moreda Rodriguez
University of Glasgow

Emeritus Professor Alison Fuller FAcSS, MAE

Professor Stephen Guest
Emeritus Professor of Legal Philosophy UCL

Dr Hannah Quirk
Reader in Criminal Law, King's College London

Professor Kenneth D. Harris
Professor of Quantitative Neuroscience, University College London

Professor Emeritus Lindsay Paterson FBA, FRSE
Professor of Education Policy, Edinburgh University

Professor Ian Deary OBE FBA FMedSci FRSE
University of Edinburgh

Dr Robin Ion
Senior Lecturer - Retired

Professor Brian Francis C.Stat.
Professor of Social Statistics, Lancaster University

Dr Neil Thin
Honorary Research Fellow, University of Edinburgh

Dr Michael Biggs
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Oxford

Roger Watson
University of Hull

Professor (Emeritus) Colin Wight
International Relations, University of Sydney

Professor David Shipworth
University College London

Dr Joseph Mintz
Associate professor in education, University College London

Lawrence Patihis
University of Portsmouth

Dr Toby Andrew
Senior Lecturer in Human Genetics, Imperial College London

Professor Anthony R Cox FRPharmS FBPhS
Professor of Clinical Pharmacy and Drug Safety, University of Birmingham

Professor Martin Widmer
Royal Holloway, University of London

Professor David Paton
Chair of Industrial Economics, Nottingham University Business School

Dr Andrew Denis
Fellow Emeritus in Political Economy, City, University of London

Eric Kaufmann
Professor of Politics, University of Buckingham

Dr Rita Floyd
Associate Professor of Conflict and Security, University of Birmingham

Dr Roham Alvandi
Associate Professor of International History, London School of Economics and Political Science

Professor Philip Dawid FRS
Emeritus Professor of Statistics, Cambridge University

Professor Julian Horton
Professor of Music Theory and Analysis, Durham University

Professor Kim Stevenson
Emeritus Professor of sociolegal history University of Plymouth

Dr Anna Maltsev
Senior Lecturer in Mathematics, Queen Mary University of London

Professor Julian Rushton
Emeritus Professor of Music, University of Leeds

Prof. Misha Feigin
University of Glasgow

Dr Asanga Welikala
Senior Lecturer in Public Law, University of Edinburgh

Ulrike Blumenschein
Senior Lecturer at QMUL

Dr Robert Laverick
School of Chemistry, University of Leeds

Dr Kath Murray
Research Fellow in Criminology, University of Edinburgh

Professor Doug Stokes
Professor of International Relations, University of Exeter

Professor Francis Green
Professor of Work and Education Economics, IOE, UCL

Professor John Rawnsley
Emeritus Professor of Mathematics, University of Warwick

Professor Kai Möller
Professor of Law, LSE

Dr. Stefano V. Albrecht
Reader in Artificial Intelligence, University of Edinburgh

David Barlow
PhD student, Sheffield Hallam University

Professor Ian Pace
Professor of Music, Culture and Society, City, University of London

Professor Charles Taylor
University of Leeds

Professor Amanda Turner
Professor of Statistics, University of Leeds

Professor Onno Bokhove
Professor in Mathematics, University of Leeds

Professor Alexandra Wilson
Professor of Music and Cultural History, Oxford Brookes University

Professor Gráinne McKeever
Ulster University

Professor Anne Green
Professor of Physics, University of Nottingham

Professor Dmitry Turaev
Imperial College London

Dr James Orr
University of Cambridge

Prof Diane McAdie
Professor of Social Informatics, Edinburgh Napier University

Professor Saul Jacka
Professor of Statistics, Warwick University

Simon West
University of Edinburgh

Dr. Anna Scheer
Senior Lecturer in Theatre, University of Lincoln

Prof. Takis Konstantopoulos
Professor of Mathematics, University of Liverpool

Dr R. M. Francis
Senior Lecturer, Creative and Professional Writing, University of Wolverhampton

Professor Michael Stewart
Department of Anthropology, UCL

Professor Jonathan A. Jones
Professor of Physics, University of Oxford

Professor Simon Goodwin
Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics, University of Sheffield

Dr Stuart Barber
Senior Lecturer in Statistics, University of Leeds

Nicholas Dodd
University of Nottingham

Dr Danielle Lamb
Senior Research Fellow, University College London

Jan Palczewski
Associate Professor, University of Leeds

Professor Geoffrey Bird
Universities of Oxford and Birmingham

Miranda Imperial
PhD Student, University of Cambridge

Professor Michael Ben-Gad
Professor of Economics, City, University of London

Professor Marcus Kaiser FRSB
University of Nottingham

Serguei Komissarov
Professor, University of Leeds

Professor Jane L hutton
Statistics, The University of Warwick

Dr Jake Anders
Associate Professor, UCL

Dr. Daniele Fanelli
Heriot-Watt University

David Bann PhD

Dr Louella Vaughan
Senior Clinical Fellow, Nuffield Trust

Professor Dennis Hayes
University of Derby

Dr Yuri Bazlov
University of Manchester

Professor Ronan McCrea
Professor of Constitutional and European Law, University College London

Professor David Hughes
Professor of Applied Mathematics, University of Leeds

Mark Pennington
Professor of Political Economy and Public Policy

Dr Bella Vivat
Principal Research Fellow, UCL

Dr. N. Vittal
University College London

Professor Gregory Sporton
Professor of Creativity, University of Westminster

Professor Adam Swift
Professor of Political Theory, University College London

Professor Samuel Falle
School of Mathematics, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT

Professor Patrick Zuk
School of Modern Languages and Cultures, Durham University

Professor Mark Webber
Professor of International Politics, University of Birmingham

119 signatories so far.

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