Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Equality, Diversity and the REF

The REF2021 results have just been published. The REF (Research Excellence Framework) is an assessment exercise that rates the quality of research across the whole of higher education in the UK, institution by institution, discipline by discipline, and even person by person (although that personal information is hidden in the published results and has to be decoded). There is a lot riding on this exercise. The better your research is deemed to be, the more funding your university receives and the higher up the academic league tables you go. The results are given here 

Apart from the academic review panels, there is also an Equality and Diversity Advisory panel, whose remit may be viewed here They focus mostly on: “the environment for supporting research and enabling impact within each submitting unit”. (Environment accounts for 15% of the overall outcome awarded to each submission and is assessed against two criteria: vitality and sustainability). Their report makes interesting reading. As James Coe points out, the following passage gives pause for thought (my italics):

“Although the EDAP’s review of institutional and unit environment statements revealed much good, and some excellent, practice across the sector, it also showed that this was far from widespread. Although many institutions had successfully implemented several gender-related initiatives, there was much less attention given to other protected groups. The panel therefore had little confidence that the majority of institutional research environments would be sufficiently mature in terms of support for ED within the next few years to totally dispense with a circumstances process”.

This reflects my own experience of ED in Higher Education. Despite the best efforts of disability groups and individuals (such as myself) in universities, disability remains the poor cousin of gender and ethnic diversity. “Equality” is normally code for gender equality, and “diversity” is normally code for ethnic or racial diversity. The various other protected characteristics (disability, religious beliefs, age, marital status and maternity) tend to get added as an afterthought at best. 

So it is really alarming to see only gender being seriously considered as part of the research environment at most institutions. Given that disability is defined (horribly!) under the Equality Act of 2010 as “a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities” and given that there are 14.6 million disabled people in the UK (according to the charity Scope) it seems quite absurd that such little account should be taken of its consequences for academic researchers. 

To be more specific, I have an admittedly unscientific suspicion that the actual numbers of autistic academics greatly exceeds the reported numbers. I am certainly aware of many colleagues who I imagine are autistic but who have not been professionally or personally identified as such. Given the extent to which autism can affect one’s interactions with the environment, it seems likely that this is a significant factor in the performance of such researchers, whether for good or ill. An exercise such as the REF really needs to take account of this. After all, we try to do the same for our students, so why not for the staff?