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And the tapestry of lies, damned lies and statistics that is REF2014 keeps on unraveling.
I learn from this morning’s Twitterfeed that Dr Dan Lockton, of the Royal College of Art, and Professor Melissa Terras, Professor of Digital Humanities and Director of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, have received identical letters in response to requests under the Freedom of Information Act for HEFCE to disclose information held on them in connection with the REF.
Dr Lockton had asked to see “data held by HEFCE concerning myself or my work, as part of the REF, including any comments, assessments or other material.”
HEFCE responded that they did not hold the information he was seeking and referred him to a FAQ on the REF website:
“Can you provide the scores for my outputs that were submitted to the REF?
Individual outputs were assessed in order to produce the output sub-profiles for each submission. Once the sub-profiles were complete, the scores for individual outputs were no longer required and have been destroyed. In accordance with data protection principles, we no longer hold the scores for individual outputs as they constitute personal data, which should not be held for longer than required to fulfil their purpose.”
When it first emerged that RAE2008 was making the same use of such Orwellian memory holes, an (anonymous) panelist explained to Times Higher Education that “It is for our own good. The process could become an absolute nightmare if departmental heads or institutions chose to challenge the panels and this information was available.“
HEFCE’s letter to Dr Lockton goes on to emphasize that:
“The purpose of the REF is to assess the quality of research and produce outcomes for each submission in the form of sub-profiles and an overall quality profile. These outcomes are then used to inform funding, provide accountability for public investment and provide benchmarking information. The purpose of the REF is not to provide a fine-grained assessment of each individual’s contribution to a submission and the process is not designed to deliver this.”
Yes, but. At the risk of appearing obtuse, I would have thought that when 65% of the overall quality profile rests on REF subpanels’ assessment of the quality of individuals’ outputs, we would expect “fine-grained assessment” of those outputs. Is this not why we have this cumbersome, time-consuming, expensive process of panel evaluation—as distinct, for instance, from using metrics—to begin with?
If it’s not fine-grained assessment, what sort of assessment is it? And how can we trust it to provide a reliable basis for funding decisions, accountability for public investment, or benchmarking?
In the immortal words of Amy Winehouse, what kind of fuckery is this?
 Zoe Corbyn, ‘Panels ordered to shred all RAE records’. Times Higher Education, 17 April 2008.
The rankings produced by Times Higher Education and others on the basis of the UK’s Research Assessment Exercises (RAEs) have always been contentious, but accusations of universities’ gaming submissions and spinning results have been more widespread in REF2014 than any earlier RAE. Laurie Taylor’s jibe in The Poppletonian that “a grand total of 32 vice-chancellors have reportedly boasted in internal emails that their university has become a top 10 UK university based on the recent results of the REF” rings true in a world in which Cardiff University can truthfully claim that it “has leapt to 5th in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) based on the quality of our research, a meteoric rise” from 22nd in RAE2008. Cardiff ranks 5th among universities in the REF2014 “Table of Excellence,” which is based on the GPA of the scores assigned by the REF’s “expert panels” to the three elements in each university’s submission (outputs 65%, impact 20%, environment 15%)—just behind Imperial, LSE, Oxford and Cambridge. Whether this “confirms [Cardiff’s] place as a world-leading university,” as its website claims, is more questionable. These figures are a minefield.
Although HEFCE encouraged universities to be “inclusive” in entering their staff in REF2014, they were not obliged to return all eligible staff and there were good reasons for those with aspirations to climb the league tables to be more “strategic” in staff selection than in previous RAEs. Prominent among these were (1) HEFCE’s defunding of 2* outputs from 2011, which meant outputs scoring below 3* would now negatively affect a university’s rank order without any compensating gain in QR income, and (2) HEFCE’s pegging the number of impact case studies required to the number of staff members entered per unit of assessment, which created a perverse incentive to exclude research-active staff if this would avoid having to submit a weak impact case study. Though the wholesale exclusions feared by some did not materialize across the sector, it is clear that some institutions were far more selective in REF2014 than in RAE2008.
Unfortunately data that would have permitted direct comparisons with numbers of staff entered by individual universities in RAE2008 were never published, but Higher Education Statistical Authority (HESA) figures for FTE staff eligible to be submitted allow broad comparisons across universities in REF2014. It is evident from these that selectivity, rather than an improvement in research quality per se, played a large part in Cardiff’s “meteoric rise” in the rankings. The same may be true for some other schools that significantly improved their positions, among them Kings (up to 7th in 2014 from 22= in 2008), Bath (14= from 20=), Swansea (22= from 56=), Cranfield (31= from 49), Heriot-Watt (33 from 45), and Aston (35= from 52=). All of these universities except Kings entered fewer than 75% of their eligible staff members, and Kings has the lowest percentage (80%) of any university in the REF top 10 other than Cardiff itself.
Cardiff achieved its improbable rank of 5th on the basis of a submission that included only 62% of eligible staff. This is the second-lowest percentage of any of the 28 British universities that are listed in the top 200 in the 2014-15 Times Higher Education World University Rankings (of these schools only Aberdeen entered fewer staff, submitting 52%). No other university in this cohort submitted less than 70% of eligible staff, and half (14 universities) submitted over 80%. Among the top schools, Cambridge entered 95% of eligible staff, Imperial 92%, UCL 91% and Oxford 87%.
Many have suggested that “research power” (which is calculated by multiplying the institution’s overall rounded GPA by the total number of full-time equivalent staff it submitted to the REF) gives a fairer indication of a university’s place in the national research hierarchy than GPA rankings alone. By this measure, Cardiff falls to a more credible but still respectable 18th. But when measured by “research intensity” (that is, GPA multiplied by the percentage of eligible staff entered), its rank plummets from 5th to 50th. To say that this provides a more accurate indication of its true standing might be overstating the case, but it certainly underlines why Cardiff does not belong among “world-leading” universities. Cardiff doubtless produces some excellent research, but its overall (and per capita) performance does not remotely justify comparisons with Oxford, Cambridge, or Imperial—let alone Caltech, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, UC-Berkeley and Yale (the other universities in the THE World University Rankings top 10). In this sense the GPA Table of Excellence can be profoundly misleading.
“To their critics,” writes Paul Jump in Times Higher Education, “such institutions are in essence cheating because in reality their quality score reflects the work produced by only a small proportion of their staff.” I am not sure the accusation of cheating is warranted, because nobody is doing anything here that is outside HEFCE’s rules. The problem is rather that the current REF system rewards—and thereby encourages—bad behavior, while doing nothing to penalize the most egregious offenders like Cardiff.
The VCs at Bristol (11= in the REF2014 GPA table) and Southampton (18=, down from 14= in 2008) might be forgiven for ruefully reflecting that they, too, might now be boasting that they are “a top ten research university” had they not chosen to submit 91% and 90% of their eligible faculty respectively—a submission rate that on any reasonable criteria (as distinct from HEFCE’s rules) should itself be regarded as a mark of research excellence. Measured by research intensity Bristol comes in at 5= (jointly with Oxford) and Southampton 8= (jointly with Queen’s University Belfast, which submitted 95% of its staff and is ranked 42= on GPA). Meantime the VCs at St Andrews (down from 14= to 21=, 82% of eligible staff submitted), Essex (11th to 35=, 82% submitted), Loughborough (28= to 49=, 88% submitted) and Kent (31= to 49=, 85% submitted) may by now have concluded that—assuming they hold onto their jobs—they will have no alternative other than to be much more ruthless in culling staff for any future REF.
The latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings puts Cardiff just outside the top 200, in the 201-225 group—which places it 29= among UK universities, along with Dundee, Newcastle, and Reading. Taking GPA, research power and research intensity into account—as we surely should, in recognition that not only the quality of research outputs but the number and proportion of academic staff who are producing them are also necessary elements in evaluating any university’s overall contribution to the UK’s research landscape—such a ranking seems intuitively to be just about right.
I have shown elsewhere that there was, in fact, a striking degree of overall agreement between the RAE2008 rankings and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Repeating the comparison for UK universities ranked in the top 200 in the THE World University Rankings for 2014-15 and the REF2014 GPA-based “Table of Excellence” yields similar findings. The data are summarized in Table 1.
Table 1: REF2014 performance of universities ranked in the top 200 in Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2014-15
|University||THE World University Rankings 2014-15||REF2014 ranking by GPA (RAE2008)||REF2014 ranking by research power||REF2014 ranking by research intensity||Percentage of eligible staff submitted|
|St Andrews||111=||21= (14=)||22||16||82|
|Royal Holloway||118||26= (24=)||40||31||77|
Seven UK universities make the top 50 in the 2014-15 THE World University Rankings: Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, UCL, LSE, Edinburgh, and Kings. Six of these are also in the REF2014 top 10, while the other (Edinburgh) is only just outside it at 11=. Four of the leading five institutions are same in both rankings (the exception being UCL, which is 8= in REF 2014), though not in the same rank order. Of 11 UK universities in THE top 100, only one is outside the REF top 20 (Glasgow, at 24th). Of 22 UK universities in THE top 150, only two (Birmingham, 31 in REF, and Sussex, 40 in REF) are outside REF top 30. Of the 28 UK universities in THE top 200, only two (Aberdeen at 46= and Leicester at 53) rank outside the REF top 40.
Conversely, only two universities in the REF2014 top 20, Cardiff at 6 and Bath at 14=, do not make it into the THE top 200 (their respective ranks are 201-225 and 301-350). Other universities that are ranked in the top 40 in REF2014 but remain outside the THE top 200 are Newcastle (26=), Swansea (26=), Cranfield (31), Herriot-Watt (33), Essex (35=), Aston (35=), Strathclyde (37), Dundee (38=) and Reading (38=).
Table 2 provides data on the performance of selected UK universities that submitted to REF2014 but are currently ranked outside the THE world top 200.
Table 2. REF2014 performance of selected UK universities outside top 200 in Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2014-15
|University||THE World University Rankings 2014-15||REF2014 ranking by GPA (RAE 2008)||REF2014 ranking by research power||REF2014 ranking by research intensity||Percentage of eligible staff submitted|
Dundee, Newcastle and Reading only just miss the THE cut (they are all in the 201-225 bracket). While all three outscored Aberdeen and Leicester, who are above them in the THE rankings (in Leicester’s case, at 199, very marginally so) in the REF, only Newcastle does substantially worse in the THE rankings than in the REF. It is ranked 26= in the REF with Nottingham and Royal Holloway, ahead of Leicester (53), Aberdeen (46), Sussex (40), Liverpool (33), Birmingham (31) and Exeter (30)—all of which are in the top 200 in the THE World Rankings. While there was a yawning gulf between Essex’s RAE2008 ranking of 11th and its THE ranking in the 301-350 group, the latter does seem to have presaged its precipitous REF2014 fall from grace to 35=. Conversely, the THE’s inclusion of Plymouth in the 276-300 group of universities places it considerably higher than its RAE rank of 66= would lead us to expect. This is not the case with most of the UK universities listed in the lower half of the THE top 400. Birkbeck, Bangor, Aberystwyth and Portsmouth also all found themselves outside the top 40 in REF2014.
The greatest discrepancies between REF2014 and the THE World Rankings come with Cardiff (6 in REF, 201-225 in REF), Bath (14= in REF, 301-350 in THE), Swansea (26= in REF, not among THE top 400), Aston (35= in REF, 350-400 in THE), Cranfield and Heriot-Watt (31= and 33 respectively in REF, yet not among THE top 400). On the face of it, these cases flatly contradict any claim that THE (or other similar) rankings are remotely accurate predictors of REF performance. I would argue, on the contrary, that these are the exceptions that prove the rule. All these schools were prominent among those universities identified above who inflated their GPA by submitting smaller percentages of their eligible staff in REF2014. Were we to adjust raw GPA figures by research intensity, we would get a much closer match, as Table 3 shows.
Table 3. Comparison of selected universities performance in THE World University Rankings 2014-15 and REF2014 by GPA and research intensity.
|University||THE 2014-15||REF2014 intensity||REF2014 GPA|
The most important general conclusion to emerge from this discussion is that despite some outliers there is a remarkable degree of agreement between the top 40 in REF2014 and the top 200 in the THE 2014-15 World University Rankings, and the correlation increases the higher we go in the tables. Where there are major discrepancies, these are usually explained by selective staff submission policies.
One other correlation is worth noting at this point. All 11 of the British universities in the THE top 100 are members of the Russell Group, as are 10 of the 17 British universities ranked between 100-200. The other six universities in this latter cohort (St Andrews, Sussex, Royal Holloway, Lancaster, UEA, Leicester) were all members of the now-defunct 1994 Group. Only one British university in the THE top 200 (Aberdeen) belonged to neither the Russell Group nor the 1994 Group. Conversely, only two Russell Group universities, Newcastle and Queen’s University Belfast, did not make the top 200 in the THE rankings. In 2013-14 Russell Group and former 1994 Group universities between them received almost 85% of QR funding. Here, too, an enormous amount of money, time, and acrimony seems to have been expended on a laborious REF exercise that merely confirms what THE rankings have already shown.
The most interesting thing about this comparative exercise is that the Times Higher Education World University Rankings not only make no use of RAE/REF data, but rely on quantitative methodologies that have repeatedly been rejected by the British academic establishment in favor of the “expert peer review” that is supposedly offered by REF panels. THE gives 30% of the overall score for the learning environment, 7.5% for international outlook, and 2.5% for industry income. The remaining 60% is based entirely on research-related measures, of which “the single most influential of the 13 indicators,” counting for 30% of the overall THE score, is “the number of times a university’s published work is cited by scholars globally” as measured by the Web of Science. The rest of the research score is derived from research income (6%), ‘research output scaled against staff numbers’ (6%, also established through the Web of Science), and ‘a university’s reputation for research excellence among its peers, based on the 10,000-plus responses to our annual academic reputation survey’ (18%).
The comparisons undertaken here strongly suggest that such metrics-based measures have proved highly reliable predictors of performance in REF2014—just as they did in previous RAEs. To be sure, there are differences in the fine details of the order of ranking of institutions between the THE and REF, but in such cases can we be confident that it is the REF panels’ highly subjective judgments of quality that are the more accurate? To suggest there is no margin for error in tables where the difference in GPA between 11th (Edinburgh, 3.18) and 30th (Exeter, 3.08) is a mere 0.1 points would be ridiculous. I have elsewhere suggested (here and here) that there are in fact many reasons why such confidence would be totally misplaced, including lack of specialist expertise among panel members and lack of time for reading outputs in the depth required. But my main point here is this.
If metrics-based measures can produce similar results to those arrived at through the REF’s infinitely more costly, laborious and time-consuming process of ‘expert review’ of individual outputs, there is a compelling reason to go with the metrics; not because it is necessarily a valid measure of anything but because it as reliable as the alternative (whose validity is no less dubious for different reasons) and a good deal more cost-efficient. The benefits for collegiality and staff morale of universities not having to decide who to enter or exclude from the REF might be seen as an additional reason for favoring metrics. I am sure that if HEFCE put their minds to it they could come up with a more sophisticated basket of metrics than Times Higher Education, which would be capable of meeting many of the standard objections to quantification. Supplementing the Web of Science with Publish or Perish or other citation indices that capture books as well as articles might be a start. I hope James Wilsdon’s committee will come up with some useful suggestions for ways forward.
 Laurie Taylor, “We have bragging rights!” in The Poppletonian, Times Higher Education, 8 January 2015.
 Well, not quite. Cardiff is actually ranked 6th in the REF2014 “Table of Excellence,” which is constructed by Times Higher Education on the basis of the grade point average (GPA) of the marks awarded by REF panels, but the #1 spot is held not by a university but the Institute of Cancer Research (which submitted only two UoAs). This table and others drawn upon here for “research power” and “research intensity” are all compiled by Times Higher Education.
 “REF 2014,” Cardiff University website at http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/research/impact-and-innovation/quality-and-performance/ref-2014
 Paul Jump, “Careers at risk after case studies ‘game playing’, REF study suggests.” Times Higher Education, 22 January 2015.
 Paul Jump, “REF 2014 rerun: who are the ‘game players’?” Times Higher Education, 1 January 2015.
 See Derek Sayer, Rank Hypocrisies: The Insult of the REF. London: Sage, 2014.
 I have discussed Newcastle already. Queen’s came in just outside the REF top 40 (42=) but with an excellent intensity rating (8=, 95% of eligible staff submitted).
 See, apart from Rank Hypocrisies, my articles “One scholar’s crusade against the REF,” Times Higher Education, 11 December, 34-6; “Time to abandon the gold standard? Peer Review for the REF Falls Far Short of Internationally Acceptable Standards,” LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog, 19 November (reprinted as “Problems with peer review for the REF,” CDBU blog, 21 November).
In a typically courageous, lucid and forthright blog post, Kenan Malik gets it dead right yet again. He is especially scathing with regard to “pusillanimous liberals” who (sort of) excuse the attack on Charlie Hebdo on grounds that it is a “racist magazine.”
- Bob Dylan and the Band The Basement Tapes (complete)
The comic book and me, just us, we caught the bus. Recorded in 1967, released for the first time this year without cleanups or overdubs and in full. I bought Great White Wonder—the first bootleg—when it came out in 1969, read Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic/Old Weird America years later, have been waiting for this for far too long. Wins by a country mile.
- Paul Bley, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins Live at the Hilcrest Club 1958
Charlie Haden passed this year. I’ve spent hours listening to this album (and a lot more Ornette), a real find, #241 of 500 vinyl copies. The set was recorded live in LA a few months before Something Else! and The Shape of Jazz to Come hit the streets. Fond memories of Wesley Dean, a bottle of Bulleit, and a long Texas afternoon.
- Drive-by Truckers English Oceans (with a side of Black Ice Verité)
Likely their best album since Jason Isbell left. Saw them play much of the album live at Stubbs in Austin under the warm Texas night sky. On our way back to the UK we drove to Atlanta via Memphis, Nashville, and Athens, GA, where DBT recorded Black Ice Verité at the 40 Watt Club. That night Athens and the south got hit with its worse ice storm in decades, hence the name.
- Lucinda Williams Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
Her best since god knows when: Essence, Car Wheels, Rough Trade, depending on your taste. The voice has years in it, the words are slurry, the band is tight and the music tough. This album distills the south like Bulleit does. We saw her at Stubbs too. She rocked.
- Gary Clark Jnr Live
Jimi Hendrix reborn. One Austin boy we didn’t get to see, to my enormous regret. There’s still time.
6. Neil Young A Letter Home
Neil got a lot of flak for this set cut in a 1940s recording booth in Jack White’s Third Man Records studio in Nashville. When I’m in the mood I find the record unbearably affecting—especially Neil’s cover of Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death.” Maybe its the scratchiness of the recording and that thin quavering high tenor, maybe it was seeing Neil rocking the free world with Crazy Horse in Hyde Park later in the summer, or maybe it’s just that we made it there—to Third Man Records—this year as well.
7. Willie Nelson Band of Brothers
Actually I haven’t heard the full album yet. But it’s on order (we’re waiting for the vinyl) and we did hear Willie debut the title track when we helped him celebrate his 81st with about 5000 others at his annual birthday bash at the Backyard at Bee Cave, just outside Austin, Texas. Outlaw country. Nobody tells me what to do.
8. Sturgill Simpson Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
The chutzpah is justified. A great lyricist. Woke up today decided to kill my ego.
9. Karen O Crush Songs
Quirky, edgy and utterly unexpected.
10. Dave Douglas and Uri Caine Present Joys
I love both these artists, together or apart. Douglas plays on Caine’s sublime reworking of Mahler, Primal Light. His Charms of the Night Sky brings back another fondly remembered American roadtrip, and the Blum House where we stayed in Polymath Park in rural Pennsylvania.
And some honorable mentions:
The Felice Brothers Favorite Waitress
Saint Paul and the Broken Bones Half the City
Johnny Winter Live Bootleg Special Edition (Record Store Day vinyl—I suspect his last record)
Micah P. Hinson and the Nothing
The New Basement Tapes (Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, Taylor Goldsmith, Jim James, Marcus Mumford) Lost on the River.
UPDATE. There is a (much cheaper) Kindle edition of this book to come soon, but it is not currently listed on amazon or other sites.
Seems oddly appropriate that I should be celebrating my 64th birthday with a new book that attacks a centerpiece of the unholy alliance of neoliberalism and Old Corruption that has been running and ruining British universities for the last thirty years. Published December 3, 2015. Lets hope it has “impact”! For more details see here.
Time to abandon the gold standard? Peer review for the REF falls far short of internationally accepted standards.
The REF2014 results are set to be published next month. Alongside ongoing reviews of research assessment, Derek Sayer points to the many contradictions of the REF. Metrics may have problems, but a process that gives such extraordinary gatekeeping power to individual panel members is far worse. Ultimately, measuring research quality is fraught with difficulty. Perhaps we should instead be asking which features of the research environment (a mere 15% of the assessment) are most conducive to a vibrant research culture and focus funding accordingly. [LSE Impact Blog, 19 November 2014]
Excellent piece by Louis Armand on Prague, mutability, and modernity.
Originally posted on equus press:
THE PERENNIAL CITY
The truth about a city can’t be gauged from the lines on a street map. And yet how can the idea of Prague exist, except as a kind of diagram of itself, the fractured geometry of an alchemist’s necronomicon, the figura mentis,figura intellectus, figura amoris…
May 1945. Edvard Beneš, the man who would come to enjoy the “doubtful distinction of having signed away his country twice,” stood at his window up in Prague Castle surveying the city below. Prague had just been “liberated” by the Red Army after six years as a de facto SS statelet. During that time 345,000 Czechs (263,000 of them Jews) had been killed by the Nazis, Lidice had been razed and its inhabitants murdered, and the Czech armaments industry had fed Hitler’s leviathan. The state-of-the-art Barandov film studios had meanwhile made Prague the jewel in Goebbels’ propaganda crown, safely…
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