Thursday, 29 November 2018

REF and the death of creativity?

I recently went to a conference about 'impact' and the REF - the Research Excellence Framework for those who remain uninitiated - which is a UK-wide government initiative to provide a mechanism for funding research excellence. A product of the REF process therefore is the assessment of excellence.

The idea of excellence could not be more contentious. This is particularly true in a class-riven society in which class-based assumptions regarding value are too often made and where universities have differential status and access to resources is clustered amongst an illustrious few. The class critique of excellence, when it is defined in Arnoldian terms, is obvious.
(Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy written 1869 where he argues for culture as the best which has been thought and to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere, that all men [sic] live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light.)

The best is made and said by women in addition to men, and by all groups people irrespective of class or ethnic background or geographical location. The best does not belong to the province of the white male bourgeoisie. But not everyone is the best. By definition only a small percentage can be best, but the average - both the median and the mean - can go up if resources, time and energy are focused on fostering cultures of excellence.

It is hardly revolutionary thinking to state that women and working class and non-white people produce excellent research once we have the resources do so. But if we are going to support excellence, we do need to know what it is. Excellence needs to be defined and supported if it to exist. For this reason I am a fan of the REF. In its avowed efforts at parity and the fact that key individuals have mandatory training in unconscious bias, it may in fact be a mechanism not only for excellence but for supporting those academics and artists who are most often overlooked for support and promotion by dint of institutional sexism and racism. I am a fan - a critical fan - of the REF because it provides one mechanism towards creating a reasonably level playing field. That is, if the REF is understood in the spirit of attaining excellence - and not as yet another instance of gaming where the usual privileged suspects win and win again, this time taking it all.

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