Liam Shaw | Stolen Time · LRB 17 May 2022

‘An Election Entertainment’ by William Hogarth, the first of the four paintings that make up ‘The Humours of an Election’ (1755), held by the Soane Museum.

In Hogarth’s An Election Entertainment, depicting the 1754 Oxfordshire by-election, a placard lies on the floor: ‘Give us our Eleven Days’. The slogan refers to the adoption of the Calendar (New Style) Act, which caused eleven days in September 1752 to be removed from the calendar. The idea that there were actual riots over the erasure bobs up like a historical beachball no matter how often it is punctured. It’s all too easy to imagine people taking to the streets in outrage at the bureaucratic theft of time.

UK universities were invited to begin their submissions to REF2021 in February 2020. Less than a month later, the chaos of Covid-19 meant the process was put on hold. It seemed almost possible it might be cancelled altogether. But as with Euro 2020, scrapping it was never a serious option. It was simply deferred to the following year without changing its name – which could be read as a sign that the bureaucratic fiction matters more than reality.

The universities touting their ‘world leading’ credentials don’t mention that huge cuts to the main pension scheme for UK universities came into effect last month. Or that pay disparities persist – for women, for disabled staff and for BME workers. Or that workloads have climbed as pay has declined, and the sector is built on casualised labour. (As an ‘early career’ academic on a temporary contract, at least I don’t have to sacrifice much time to the REF: all I have to do is remember to upload my papers to an additional repository. The heavy bureaucratic lifting is done by senior academics and administrators, who devote hours to preparing submissions.) This year has already seen industrial action by the University and College Union UCU at more than sixty universities. Further action is being discussed. None of this context is captured by the REF.

Supporters of the REF argue that it is both a fair condition for the receipt of public money and an essential tool for determining where funding goes in the future. To its detractors, it demonstrates all the worst features of higher education: the boiling down of its activities to metrics that seem designed to convey as little information as possible, which are then used to justify policies driven by market forces.

An internal email from my department last week urged us not to compare ourselves ‘to any other department in any communications’. Yet one of the three explicit purposes of REF is to ‘inform the selective allocation of funding’. The façade of collegiality is maintained only in public. Universities don’t maintain departments that don’t deliver the right metrics. There were 28 fewer submissions to the ‘arts and humanities’ section of the REF than seven years ago.

The REF’s predecessor was the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), instigated by the Thatcher government in 1986. The same approach is now applied to other aspects of higher education: we also have the Teaching (TEF) and Knowledge (KEF) Excellence Frameworks. These aren’t just paper exercises – reality bends around them in response. In 2014, universities were able to pick and choose which staff they submitted to REF. This time they had to submit everyone with ‘research’ or ‘teaching and research’ contracts, which probably contributed to a rise in ‘teaching only’ contracts.

Almost a third of UK academics are now employed on such contracts, despite many universities being signatories of the Magna Charta Universitatum of 1988 which states that ‘teaching and research in universities must be inseparable’. Teaching itself has changed focus. Analysis of 2017 TEF submissions concluded that success – a ‘gold’ ranking – was associated with such concerns as ‘employment’ and ‘employability’.

In theory, academics are in charge of their time. In practice, administrative work with a deadline always trumps open-ended research. Demonstrating that something is ‘excellent’ requires time –time that might otherwise be spent doing‘excellent’ things. And yet, even as more time is expended on efforts to measure excellence, there can be no reduction in the amount of excellence that is expected.

Academics may complain about stolen time, but they always make sure to fill in the forms. The late David Graeber often told a story from the time of the student fees protests in 2010. He had tried to persuade colleagues to cause disruption by refusing to fill in forms that were ‘obviously meaningless’: ‘People stared at me as if I were insane. What, not fill out the form? You have to fill out the forms! Otherwise, someone will suffer. It’s never quite clear who.’

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