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Ensuring equality and diversity in nominations to REF 2021 panels

Published: 07/12/2017

ECU’s Policy Programme Manager Ellen Pugh, who is a member of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) Equality and Diversity Advisory Panel (EDAP), responds to questions that ECU has encountered on the requirement to consider equality and diversity in REF panel nominations.

The deadline for nominating REF 2021 panel members is 20 December 2017 at noon. For the first time, nominating bodies are being asked by the UK funding bodies to provide information on how they have considered equality and diversity when making nominations.

The aim is to encourage nominating bodies to look beyond the usual suspects, to find out about the diversity of their members and draw on a wider talent pool than that used for previous nominations. It is hoped that by doing so the composition of REF 2021 panels will be more representative of the diversity of staff within the higher education (HE) sector and society as a whole than previous exercises.

Some individuals have expressed interest in becoming a REF 2021 panel member – how can you be nominated? Any association or organisation with an interest in research can make nominations expect higher education institutions (HEIs), mission groups and subsidiaries of HEIs. You can find a list of associations and organisations who have previously expressed interest in nominating and should be aware of the process here. Some such as Research and Enterprise Network for Universities (RENU) have put out a wide call for applicants stating their commitment to equality and diversity.

People have also asked us how REF panels can be more diverse when we know that women, BME and disabled people are under represented at senior levels in the HE sector? It is important to be aware that when we talk about diversity we do not only mean diversity in relation to gender, race and disability. We also mean diversity in relation to age, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, religion and belief and pregnancy and maternity.

In relation to age, due to the nature of the role, panel members will be in a senior position in their field and are consequently likely to be from older age groups. In REF 2014, the majority of panel members were aged over 45.

In REF 2014 nearly all panel members employed by universities held a professorship. The numbers of women in the professoriate have increased from 18.7% in 2008/2009 to 23.9% in 2015/16, the numbers of UK national BME professors has also increased during this time from 5.5% to 8%. In 2015/16, 14.4% of non UK national BME staff were professors.

Numbers of disabled professors have barely increased between 2008/09 and 2015/16. Yes, there has been some progress in relation to the representation of BME groups and women in the professoriate but there is still persistent under representation of women, BME and disabled people. While this data is indicative of the sector as a whole, it is certainly not the case for all subject areas and the REF team have helpfully provided contextual data by subject area to help nominating bodies.

Panels also have representatives from industry and sector agencies.  In REF 2014, half of these representatives did not have a doctorate nor a professorship. The other half primarily held a doctorate.  Panel specialist advisers did not all hold professorships. This highlights that nominating bodies need to look at the wider set of role requirements when making their nominations and is particularly important given the under representation of women, BME and disabled people in the professoriate and in certain subject areas within HE.

Some may argue that they do not want to over burden staff from under represented groups as participating in too many activities detracts from their research. Yes, this can certainly be the case and highlights the need for HEIs to consider workload management and career progression routes, but involvement in a REF panel indicates a level of experience. One would hope involvement is likely to be of benefit to a person’s career as well as the institution.

Rather than making assumptions as to whether or not a person would like to be nominated, nominating bodies should seek the views of the individual concerned and consider the implications on their workload should their nomination be successful. For women, the latter is key given that in society as a whole, they still take on the majority of caring responsibilities within a household whether that be caring for children or older relatives.

And if people still require convincing, many funders of research recognise that having a diverse research team can result in better research outcomes. In our publication the Rationale for Equality and Diversity we also have 12 case studies from vice chancellors and principals across the sector extolling the benefits of equality and diversity for their institution. We would need to conduct research to be certain but I would hope that a diverse group of people responsible for undertaking peer review and interpreting metrics may help the sector overcome some of the issues raised with both methods of evaluating research quality.

Most frequently we have been asked how nominating bodies can consider equality and diversity when making their nominations but I will not go into detail here as Kim Hackett, REF Manager, and Dianne Berry, Chair of the Equality and Diversity Advisory Panel, have written a great blog explaining the process and linking to key REF 2014 and REF 2021 information.

ECU will be seeking to provide further information on the REF in due course. In the meantime initial decisions that have been made on REF 2021 and a timetable can be found on the REF 2021 website. One of the most significant developments is the confirmation that all staff with significant responsibility for research who are independent researchers will be returned. There will be arrangements to allow units to reduce the number of outputs required due to staff circumstances whether it be a culmination of circumstances or the need for an individual to be returned without the required minimum of one output. EDAP will be advising further on this.

Further information will be provided on the publication of the draft guidance on submissions, which will be available in summer/autumn 2018.