NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

They think it’s all over …

So, the final whistle has sounded; the REF has blown for full-time, seven years until the next one, and time now to pick over the entrails of another exhausting – and exhaustive – research assessment exercise across the disaggregated countries once described in the Atlas as the “United Kingdom”.

By Professor Paul Gough 

After reading news articles on the latest in the UK REF process, we invited Professor Paul Gough, VC at the Arts University Bournemouth and a regular NiTRO contributor, to give his perspective on the latest.

So, the final whistle has sounded; the REF has blown for full-time, seven years until the next one, and time now to pick over the entrails of another exhausting – and exhaustive – research assessment exercise across the disaggregated countries once described in the Atlas as the “United Kingdom”.

UK higher education is now well practiced at assessing research, much as you are in Australia, although mercifully they are not held as frequently, and the stakes are monetary, not just reputational.

The scale of the endeavour was alpine: across UK higher education, 76,132 academics submitted at least one research output: that was an increase on 46% on the 52,000 reviewed in 2014. This time more staff were required to submit, but the tail of “poor” quality did not eventuate. Indeed, the peaks of excellence became peakier: in 2104 some 30% of the research assessed through the peer-review process was ranked as 4*, that is, “world leading”, and 46% judged to be “internationally excellent”. This time around, a staggering 41% of outputs were deemed to be 4*, and 43% judged of international excellence. At least 15 % of all research was considered world-leading in three-quarters of UK universities. (I am delighted to spill the beans that my own institution and many others in the arts sector were in that top tier, and for the first time AUB has featured on a select table of “research power” – but don’t worry, I won’t be ordering the mask and cape just yet).

Despite the perennial concerns of many of us, word has it that rigorous, practice-led enquiry fared well in REF 2021, or at least better than many feared. Practitioners in those units of assessment … have, it seemed, proved able to articulate the research content clearly, with evidence and with rigorous conviction.

Judging by the initial responses and early data analysis this is not merely grade inflation. The spread of achievement has been far beyond the capital, metropolitan centres, with some regions – the north-east of England, for example – proving to be clusters of excellence that will no doubt merit closer interrogation. The requirement in this REF to submit all research-active staff has, it appears, not resulted in a tail of mediocrity. 

We can see that reflected in the quality of the impact case studies which had to be written in line with the ratio of staff submitted. They will go online soon: all 6,781 of them. As in 2014 they should make engrossing reading, not just those across science and medicine (that will share the creation of the vaccine for COVID-19) but those in our own fields of enquiry: the dance, drama, music, and arts case studies that show the direct relevance of our practice-led enquiry across the economy, society and a diverse array of industries in UK and beyond.

UK higher education is now well practiced at assessing research, much as you are in Australia, although mercifully they are not held as frequently, and the stakes are monetary, not just reputational. In fact, there is $2 billion pounds of allocation to be made; cash that is heaven sent for a university sector that has watched with despair as Horizon Europe money has vanished beyond the English Channel. Because of the spread of quality ratings, some of the smaller institutions might see a modest lift in their allocation. But in truth it’s a zero-sum game: there’s only one kitty. However, the new UKRI Strategy launched in late May has put a deliberate emphasis on diversity: on nurturing the entire ecosystem.

Despite the perennial concerns of many of us, word has it that rigorous, practice-led enquiry fared well in REF 2021, or at least better than many feared. Practitioners in those units of assessment that included art, design, performance, screen, stage, and the myriad of cross- and inter-disciplinary subjects therein, have it seemed proved able to articulate the research content clearly, with evidence and with rigorous conviction. The percentage of outputs deemed “unclassified” (i.e. beneath the threshold of research quality) appears minuscule, though the full datasets are yet to emerge.

Our sector has learned, often painfully and after some pretty rancorous debate, the clear differences between creative-practice and practice-research. To that point, I commend the extensive survey report Practice Research conducted by James Bulley and Ozden Sahin (2021).

I know there are entire libraries of books, papers, and reports on this pet subject, many written by excellent Australian scholars, where once there were barely a few paragraphs, but this one nails it for me. The authors assert – with plenty of evidence and compelling case studies – how practice researchers are discovering new ways of generating and sharing research. In a world rife with mixed-media and non-textual information, Practice Research points to ways of embracing new, non-textual media and formats, communicating ideas via a vast array of novel communicative technologies that we each use in our everyday lives. 

References 

Practice Research, Bulley and Sahin, 2021
https://www.jamesbulley.com/practice-research-in-england-reports-2021/

REF 2021 league table of “Research Power”
https://www.timeshighereducation.com/content/ref2021mainonlinetable

UKRI new Strategy 2022-27
https://www.ukri.org/about-us/strategy-plans-and-data/our-strategy-2022-to-2027/

UKADIA
International partners
https://ukadia.ac.uk/members/


Professor Paul Gough is Vice-Chancellor and Principal at Arts University Bournemouth, having moved from a role as Vice-President of RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia. A painter, broadcaster and writer, he has exhibited internationally and is represented in the permanent collection of the Imperial War Museum, London, the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, and the National War Memorial, New Zealand. In addition to leading roles in national and international higher education and global research assessment, his research into the imagery of war and peace has been presented to audiences throughout the world. In addition to an exhibiting record, he has published nine books, including monographs on the British painter Stanley Spencer, Paul and John Nash and several comprehensive studies of art from both world wars. He worked in television for ten years and is currently writing his second book about the street artist, Banksy.

More from this issue

More from this issue

By now you will have heard Australia has a new Government, a new Education Minister, a growing crossbench in the Senate and the potential for real change in the tertiary education system. Arts, social science and humanities disciplines suffered under the previous administration and palpable disregard for the creative arts ran deep.