For those working outside the febrile atmosphere of the higher education sector, the REF is unlikely to mean very much. Perhaps the most eagle-eyed will have spotted some headlines around about Christmas claiming that x-percentage of UK research had been determined 'world leading'. An even closer look might have revealed how different institutions/departments found ways of claiming that they were in the 'top 10' according to some measure or other. To outsiders, it matters little, but to insiders the REF brings with it the same kind of paranoia and bullying that an Ofsted inspection does for UK teachers, or an external audit of Swiss accounts might for senior managers in a global bank.
It's not my intention to get into the politics and procedures of the REF here except to note that 'impact' has become an ever more important part of what we do. Impact can be loosely defined as making some kind of change out in the 'real world' as a result of the research, whether this be through shaping policy, coming up with a new industrial process, facilitating the work of a charity or community group and so on.
On one level, this is a pretty noble aim. Why should academics spend their days only really talking to each other and doing research that makes no difference to the world outside the ivory tower? What's interesting, however, is the extent to which these demands for having more of a real world impact are coming at the same time as there is a wider assault upon the infrastructure of society in pursuit of short term goals.
I'm (re)reading some things at the moment looking at how we can conceptualise time, including a piece by Noel Castree (paywall link here). Castree gives a neat summary of how David Harvey sees two roles for time in capitalism. The first is the short term, where time is used to create a constant present, as capitalism seeks to generate surplus value through exchange. The second, more interesting, is where a proportion of capital that might otherwise be used for immediate production has to be diverted for medium/long-term investment. A practical example of this is re-investing some of your profits on new plant that will enable you to produce goods more efficiently in the medium/longer term even if it means your balance sheet takes a hit in the short term.
The state does - or rather did - this sort of long term spending all the time. You invest heavily building roads, airports, docks that provide the infrastructure for capitalists to make money doing other things - if you don't have this infrastructure in your country, capital will shift its activity to countries that do because they can make more money there.
If you want to take a reductive reading of human relations you can argue that things like education, art, caring/community work etc. can be seen as part of the infrastructure of society - necessary to the long term reproduction of capitalism, but not generating profit directly. Unfortunately contemporary capitalism seems to find the notion of medium/longer term investments problematic in a culture of short-term returns based on maximising share price by cutting costs. Thus those working in sectors that do not generate unambiguous fiscal earnings find themselves increasingly pressured to demonstrate how they 'add value'. Indeed, my colleague Dave O'Brien has been at the sharp end of thinking through how this 'value' can and should be measured within the cultural sector.
Both higher education and the arts thus get told "if you are receiving all this public money we want a concrete return for it". By assessing impact, the REF makes us complicit in a neoliberal agenda hostile to public spending that seeks to narrow the realm of justifiable long term investment to that which can be seen to show a clear return. In a nutshell, academia can't easily show us the money, so to justify its value it has to show us the impact. Longer term things around building an intellectual environment, creating a culture in which ideas can thrive etc. do not generate immediate value and are thus seen as problematic.
Knowing this makes me a little uncomfortable about the kind of work I'm engaged with at the moment, where we're trying to examine new ways of having communities determine priorities for public spending on arts/cultural investment. We were funded under a somewhat controversial funding stream, which was accused (somewhat unfairly) in the media of being politically motivated as it emerged in 2010. The allegation was that the funding call responded to a Conservative policy agenda relating to the 'big society', divesting local authorities of power and finding ways of managing a variety of complex issues at the 'community' scale (i.e. requiring people to solve their own problems rather than asking the state to step in to deal with inequality). Thus in doing this work I have to ask whether I'm complicit in a neoliberal agenda of short term shrinkage of legitimate public spending, hacking away at the infrastructures that are fundamental to keeping society going in the long term.
Maybe. Certainly I find myself not knowing what I would be comfortable seeing as policy 'impact' from this project. Does this research legitimise the shrinkage of the state by highlighting inefficiencies and inequalities in spending by the public sector in the arena of culture? This project has all kinds of gains for my career in terms of hitting short term targets on inputs and outputs. Curtailing cultural spend would certainly be a major piece of academic impact that we could boast about in a subsequent REF. But... do I want that as my academic legacy in the medium term?
Castree N (2009) The Spatio-temporality of capitalism Time & Society 18;1 26-61