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REF 2014: What does it mean for education and educational research?



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The outcomes of REF 2014 were published on 18th December 2014. BERA is studying the outcomes for Education with great interest, having been clearly committed to the continuing improvement of quality in educational research throughout its existence. Not least we are interested in how the new dimension of the ’impact’ of educational research has been demonstrated by institutions across the four nations of the UK.

One immediate positive is the number of education submissions receiving a 4* rating – significantly up on the last assessment exercise and equivalent to other social sciences.

To assist in the review and interpretation of the outcomes, BERA invited the Chair of the Education Sub-Panel, Andrew Pollard, to provide a short commentary and to suggest documents which may help in contextualising the outcomes. This commentary (updated on 18th December following the publication of the gradings) and the documents suggested, are provided below.

At our annual meeting for Heads of Department, Andrew and some colleagues from the Sub-Panel have kindly agreed to lead us in reviewing the outcomes and the implications of the exercise. This will take place on February 3rd in London. BERA Council will also discuss the REF outcomes at our away day to be held in May.

This page on our website will be updated again when the official ‘overview report’ for Education becomes available in early 2015. It will be augmented too if other helpful commentaries are suggested or when contributions by others become available. We urge BERA members to join in these discussions which are likely to have a profound influence not only directly on us but also on our institutions and other networks and organisations.

The spring edition of Research Intelligence will be a special issue on: ‘REF: Changing Educational Landscapes’. Ideas and contributions for this should be sent to the editorial team.

Ian Menter, December, 2014


The REF outcome, in my opinion, is a good overall result for Education.  However, it also draws attention to issues which are becoming increasingly challenging.

30% of our research activity was judged to be world leading (4*).  This is expected to be the most important multiplier for funding and should therefore enhance the overall QR resources which will be deployed in relation to Education for the next five years or so.  In 2008, the comparable figure was 15% – which was below many other fields in the social sciences.  This time Education, with Economics and Econometrics, was the top performer in relation to world leading work from the sub-panels within Main Panel C.  The 30% figure was also the mean for 4* work across all sub-panels of the entire REF.  Output scores were significantly improved overall, and there were also some excellent outcomes on impact and environment.  Education can thus hold its head up, and critics of recent decades will have to acknowledge the progress which has been made and has now been recorded and endorsed by the REF.  It is also the case that elements of 4* work could be found in a considerable number of Education submissions, though most of it was relatively concentrated and scale appeared to be a factor.  It was clear however that relatively small but strategically focused teams can achieve work of the highest standard.

The less good news however is that the proportion of our work judged to be 3* was low compared with other fields.  This suggests that our excellence is not yet at quite the depth or scale at which we may wish for.  More work to be done then.  Even more significantly, the proportion of 1* work in Education, at 7%, was almost the highest in the REF overall.  Whilst 1* work makes a worthwhile national contribution, it is not normally the target score of those entering the REF, so there is likely to be some disappointment about that aspect of the outcome.

I anticipate these outcomes will trigger wide-ranging discussion of research purposes and activity in education, particularly when seen in the context of the rapid changes which are also taking place in teacher education.

Education is a large and diverse field.  Some indicators point to global excellence (see the QS and BIS resources below), others to impending crises as the relationship between research and teacher education changes (see John Furlong’s Anatomy, and BERA UCET’s Prospects).   The REF has showcased the many forms of research and enquiry which take place within the field, as was also demonstrated in the SFRE report, Unlocking Learning.  One end of the activity spectrum leads towards an ever-widening range of social scientific theories, methods and topics (see, for example, EERA’s Agenda for Horizon 2020).  The other end of the spectrum affirms the importance of scholarship in relation to both substantive forms of subject knowledge in education (as did the old CNAA validation systems, see below) and for high quality practices in teaching and learning (SoTL, see also Ashwin’s forthcoming book below).

The activity required to compete successfully in social scientific terms is, in my opinion, becoming increasingly distinct from the activity required to flourish in the rapidly changing fields of teacher education.  The pressure which this puts on staff working in Education is sometimes extremely acute.

Andrew Pollard, December 18th, 2014

(A fuller version of this commentary is available to download on this page)

Suggested Reading

Education – An Anatomy of the Discipline by John Furlong (2013), published by Routledge (Taylor and Francis Group). John Furlong’s award winning book provides a comprehensive analysis of the contemporary field of education in the UK. The final chapter, reproduced here by kind permission of Routledge, summarises ‘re-tooling’ challenges in respect of three dimensions – for professional education, for knowledge mobilisation and for research. Furlong argues that we have to be very clear ‘about what the purpose of university-based study of education actually is’. The full book can be found through Routledge.

Unlocking Learning: Towards Evidence-informed Policy and Practice in Education. This is the final report of the UK Strategic Forum for Research in Education, SFRE (2008-10). Building on widespread stakeholder discussion, SFRE presented a systemic model of knowledge development and mobilisation in education, and reviewed provision in each UK jurisdiction on the basis of this. It distinguished between ‘disciplinary research’, ‘applied research’, ‘evaluative and developmental research’ and ‘practitioner enquiry’, and argued for the distinctive merits of each form of activity.

QS World University Rankings by Subject, 2014, Education. This ranking, based largely on international surveys of academic opinion, records 19 UK universities in the ‘global top 100’ for education, or 32 in the top 200. The Institute of Education, University of London, is represented as the global leader.

International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base, 2011. This report is one of a series produced every two years by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. They are largely based on bibliometric data – a source that may be used to validate REF 2014 outcomes. The 2011 report cites Education as a ‘UK Strength Case Study’, with a world leading citation count.

Prospects for Education, a BERA UCET report. This 2012 report reviewed policy, provision and practice within the UK in relation to teacher education and research. It warned that a ‘perfect storm’ may threaten the existence of education research within some UK HEIs. Using data up to 2010, it reviewed the number of research active staff in education, and levels of QR funding in each part of the UK. Initial teacher education, undergraduate, post-graduate and CPD provision were also considered. The report concludes by taking stock of ‘multiple challenges’, ways of ‘mitigating threats’, ‘seizing opportunities’ and prospects for the evolution of new forms of partnership.

EERA’s Agenda for Horizon 2020. This statement by the European Educational Research Association demonstrates the potential for education research to contribute to contemporary societal priorities which lie far beyond the domain of schools. It illustrates how the scope of the research agenda is expanding. Similar ‘big issues’ can also be found amongst ESRC’s priorities.

Research and the Teaching Profession: Building the Capacity for a Self-Improving Education System. This 2014 report of a BERA-RSA inquiry concludes that teachers across the UK should be supported to become ‘research literate’. This should include being given frequent opportunities to read up on the latest findings, with every pupil entitled to lessons which are informed by the best evidence. The inquiry lays down 10 principles for self-improving and research-rich education systems, and 20 recommendations, embracing both teacher education and teachers’ professional development once in the job.

Scholarship and subject knowledge. The Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) (1965-93) oversaw the degree-awarding powers of polytechnics and colleges. It maintained comparability with degree level awards in the universities of the period. To do this, it insisted that teaching staff maintained a high level of ‘scholarship’ in relation to the field of knowledge or practice for which they were responsible. This was not the same as a requirement to engage in ‘research’ per se. Rather, it was an expectation that staff should be aware of, and able to teach about, an appropriate range of knowledge to maintain the contemporary currency of their teaching. In relation to education, such substantive forms of subject knowledge might cover, for instance, issues, evidence, analyses, policies and practices in a range of educational settings. :  (The original document appears at present to be available only in libraries and archives.)

Scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). In its many forms, such as that of ‘reflective teaching’, SoTL remains important for the improvement of teaching practice. It is concerned with the quality of teaching and learning processes, and how these are adapted in respect of the subject which is being taught For an example, see Paul Ashwin et al, 2015, Reflective Teaching in Higher Education, Bloomsbury.

Government policy on teacher education has been changing the system radically in England with, particularly, an enormous growth of School Direct and changed roles for university providers.  The Carter Review will report very soon and may propose further developments.  An indication of current thinking is provided by a DFE press release  (9th December) which, in addition to the establishment of a ‘College of Teaching’. envisages ‘a more high-quality, evidence-based professional development programmes – designed and delivered by a network of more than 600 leading teaching schools, working in partnership with others to spread the findings of their work across the teaching profession’.  The Labour Party is thinking about similar issues, though it is not yet clear what specific policies will be proposed, and what future role may be envisaged for university research and teacher education provision.

The official site of the RAE 2008 provides full details of the processes and outcomes of that assessment process, as established by the four UK funding councils.  More detailed outcome profiles for education can be found for 2008 here and the Education overview report can be found here.

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