by Dr James Hand, Reader in Law, Portsmouth Law School, University of Portsmouth

The Final Guidance on Submissions for REF 2021 stresses the importance of equality and that the funding bodies “have made every effort to try to eliminate any incentives towards discriminatory practices by HEIs in the process, but to the extent that there are any such inadvertent incentives, it is HEIs’ responsibility as employers and public bodies to ensure that they avoid engaging in discriminatory practices” [155].  The webinar on Codes of Practice places strong emphasis on importance that HEIs consider and understand the effect of their REF policies on equality and diversity.  Yet a change in approach from the draft guidance seems to incentivise discrimination alongside existing perverse incentives.

It was originally planned that the de-coupling of outputs and individuals and focusing on a unit total (based on 2.5 times the unit’s FTE) would provide flexibility and remove the need for considering individual circumstances.  During consultations, the funding councils moved to a position where units could apply for reductions for special circumstances with a tariff laid down by them (such as being an ECR or taking maternity leave).  This was on top of flexibility, which is available to all, as circumstances could particularly affect certain groups.  Thus units where people took parental leave could have a reduction to reflect the time spent out of the workforce and treat them broadly equivalently with those who worked on a fractional basis (whose lesser productivity would be reflected in REF 2021 via the FTE calculation rather than through special circumstances).

The draft guidance called this “a key measure to support equality and diversity in research careers” but recognised that some units would prefer to use flexibility (and, if so, mandated that they explain how the effect of individual circumstances was reflected in the selection of outputs).  The final guidance, however, declares that “it is the funding bodies’ view, supported by advice from EDAP, that institutions will not routinely need to request reductions to the number of outputs required by a submitting unit” and that individual circumstances can only be claimed where “a given unit has been disproportionately affected by equality-related circumstances” such as where there “are very high proportions of staff in the unit whose individual circumstances have affected their productivity over the REF assessment period” [174]-[176].

There is no clear guidance on what a disproportionate number of equality-related circumstances are.  A high number of ECRs in a growing department may not be enough given the reference to very high.  How many maternity/paternity leaves in a unit is proportionate? How many disabled people where the disability has impacted on productivity? By forcing these groups – who the draft guidance recognised needed reductions beyond that which the flexibility available to all provides – to rely on flexibility within the units, the final guidance appears to be applying a policy which risks creating a particular disadvantage to them.  Everyone can seek to take advantage of the general flexibility (there being “many reasons why an excellent researcher may have fewer or more outputs attributable to them in an assessment period” [153]) but those with individual circumstances have those circumstances on top of the general situation. There may be a legitimate aim behind the policy and limiting reductions may be a proportionate means of achieving that aim but that remains unclear as the Equality Impact Assessment for the change has not yet been published.  However, even if there is, the policy is still potentially subjecting those with individual circumstances to feeling that they are an added burden on their units (as others have to make up for any deficit) and acts as an incentive to not employ them.  While all good employers would seek to ignore that incentive and to reassure their staff as much as they can, it is far better for that incentive and any added perception of burden not to be there in the first place.  Furthermore, introducing a policy which allows that state of affairs sits uneasily with the duty on public sector bodies to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and to foster good relations between persons with and without a relevant protected characteristic under s.149 Equality Act 2010.

The final guidance has also seen the decision to allow outputs by staff made redundant.  This has raised substantial concern (see e.g. UCU’s response and the LSE Impact Blog).  There is a risk of sharing sensitive information if such outputs were to be excluded but the outputs of those who were promoted elsewhere or retired, for example, were included (as noted in the key decisions document). It is slightly harder to see why “disallowing their outputs would disincentivise institutions from employing these individuals” in the first place but a rule which excluded redundant staff’s outputs save for those who were on fixed-term contracts was ruled out as it would “provide an incentive for HEIs to move staff onto fixed-term contracts and, in doing so, increase the precariousness of academic employment”.  The bigger perversity here is that outputs of former eligible staff include those who have been moved onto a teaching-only contract whereas outputs by those who are on teaching and research contracts but who are not deemed to have significant responsibility for research are not submissible, creating an incentive to move people onto different contracts (something which the funding councils are opposed to).  In these cases, the institutions’ codes of practice will be key in ensuring good behaviour and the inclusion of too many past staff – and pronounced shifts in contractual status – are likely to impact negatively on the environment statement element of the REF.

The Stern reforms to the REF were supposed to simplify matters.  The draft guidance would have done so while providing greater support for equality.  The final guidance greatly restricts the reductions and provides uncertainty as to when applications for reductions at unit level would be accepted but requires all institutions to ask (but not pressure) their employees as to whether they have individual circumstances – including ECR status and HR documented breaks from work – perversely adding to the bureaucracy.