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When Barbara Allan, the dean of Westminster Business School in London, returned from her holidays this summer and opened her emails she discovered a couple of unexpected messages. “I had emails from senior researchers asking whether I would like to sign them up before the Ref.”
The Research Excellence Framework, the UK government’s mechanism to assess the quality of research in universities, may seem like some arcane academic idiosyncrasy but it has huge implications for the way UK business schools operate.
“The Ref becomes a strong driver of behaviour,” says Susan Hart, dean of Strathclyde Business School in Glasgow. “It’s not irrational behaviour, it’s the way the rules of the game have been set. It can make people focus on research to the extent of ignoring those ‘annoying things’ that are called students.”
Prof Allan declined the unsolicited approaches. When she appoints new professors, she says, she is looking for people who can do more than publish a couple of articles in top journals. “The Ref, though it’s very important, can be a distraction from our main vision and mission.”
For many business schools, the Ref, which takes place every five years, is more than just a distraction. For them, it is central to building the school’s academic reputation and bolstering funds. Its findings form the basis from which government research funding is allocated to all business schools including elite institutions such as London Business School, the Saïd Business School in Oxford and the Judge at Cambridge. Madan Pillutla, the LBS professor who is chairing the school’s Ref task force, says that it receives £3.5m a year to invest in research as a result of the Ref.
This week will be the last in which university departments can sign up professors to take part in the Ref, resulting in a last-minute scramble that bears an uncanny resemblance to top football clubs when they try to sign up footballing talent before a transfer window closes.
source: Financial Times data
Some business schools are prepared to pay “whacking great salaries for star performers”, says Prof Hart. “I don’t play that game. But I understand why some deans do.”
Strathclyde is among the schools with the greatest turnover in professors over the past two years, according to data supplied to the Financial Times Global MBA rankings. Of the 142 teaching staff at the school, 46 joined between 2011 and 2013. Overall, Strathclyde had a turnover of 27 per cent – the average for the 14 UK business schools that appear in the FT MBA and EMBA rankings is 23 per cent.
But the highest turnover has been at Warwick Business School, which was traditionally seen as one of the UK’s top three research schools along with LBS and Lancaster, although it lost ground in the last research assessment in 2008. At Warwick 66 of the 121 teaching staff joined the school in the past two years. Mark Taylor, its dean, is unrepentant. “I have been working hard in pushing the school forward. I inherited a school with everyone about to retire.
“We rebalanced the ages of the professors and secondly we hired [both] a lot of professors and a lot of new rookies,” he says. “We were basically thinking about the school’s research position but we were also thinking about the future of the school.”
He dismisses the idea that the surge in academic hiring has been related to the Ref. “We just wanted to make the business school the best it can be. We haven’t gone out and hired for the Ref but we have thought about it – all schools do.”
The Ref is a process that is greeted with both enthusiasm and concern
by UK deans. For Prof Hart there are worries. “It makes schools vulnerable as it means faculty can be promoted prematurely because they have had a few good articles and show promise.”
At Lancaster University Management School, Sue Cox, the dean, believes the Ref has real reputational value. “I think there is value in the UK showing that there is high-quality research,” she says. “What the Ref does is give us an institutional sense of pride.” In the end, she adds, “it might end up with the positive effect of driving up academic quality”.
Prof Pillutla also gives the Ref largely favourable reviews. “We like the fact that we are accountable and that there is an outside body confirming it. The degree of subjectivity leaves a lot of people unhappy, but it is a level playing field.”
During the next few months deans will be deliberating over the research articles and selecting professors to submit to the Ref. “The gaming is to maximise the quality profile and only put in part of the faculty,” says Prof Pillutla. That would give the school a higher profile but lower funding. LBS intends to submit all its academic staff, he adds.
New to the process this year is a measurement of the impact of the research of the schools, rather than just an assessment of academic rigour. This has been widely welcomed, though no one seems to really understand the implications.
“It’s all a shot in the dark, this impact stuff, isn’t it?” says Prof Taylor. “The impact is an interesting development because all business schools should have impact. [Business education] is not just about academic research, it is about changing the world.”
None of the top handful of schools is prepared to dismiss the Ref. “It does become a league table,” says Prof Taylor. “It is important because people think it is important.”
But Prof Allan is clear the Ref will not affect how she appoints academic staff. Her list of professorial requirements includes a willingness to mentor early-stage researchers, the ability to contribute to the research knowledge exchange and involvement in teaching and learning.
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