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‘Current Issues in HE’: NAMHE-Convened Roundtable Discussion from the RMA Research Students’ Conference, University of Bangor, Jan. 2016. Part IV

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In the fourth part of our transcription of the ‘Current Issues in HE’ NAMHE-convened roundtable discussion that took place at the RMA Research Students’ Conference in January at the University of Bangor, Professor Rachel Cowgill reflects on the importance of understanding research expectations in HE and offers some very useful advice. 

Part I         Part II          Part III          Part IV          Part V

 

Presenter [Zaina Shihabi]:

Our final speaker will be Professor Rachel Cowgill, who is the Chair of NAMHE and Vice-President of the RMA.  Professor Cowgill is also Head of Music & Drama and Professor of Musicology at the University of Huddersfield.  Today she’ll be discussing current changes in the research landscape that early career researchers and PhD students will find useful to know about.  The title of her talk is Moving Targets? Understanding Research Expectations in HE.

Fourth Speaker [Professor Rachel Cowgill]:

Thank you very much, Zaina.  I’m very aware that I’m the ‘warm-up’ for Alison Balsom, which doesn’t put me in a very good position at all (laughing), and we did want to show you that video, so I’m going to spin through this at a fair rate of knots.  I’m going to throw some issues out there.  The slides will also be available to you, and I’m going to add some links that you’ll hopefully find useful just to get a broader sense of the context for the points that I’m going to make – that’s the idea.  When I was thinking about what we might do with this last slot, on research, I talked to Zaina about what she would find most useful, being the student rep on our panel.  I’ve tried to address some of the points that came up, so I hope it’s going to be relevant to you.

OK, Moving Targets? Understanding Research Expectations in Higher Education [see Slide 1].  Obviously, all of you here are committed to research, because this is a research students’ conference, so I feel to a certain extent we’ve got a shared sense of what research is and have all made some sort of commitment to it, so I’m going to move on from that as a starting point.

Now we’ve already had a bit of talk about the REF, and I’m just going to give you a few key pointers (if you know about this stuff already, it will help perhaps just to reiterate some of these points about the REF) because this is effectively the framework within which, over the last one or two decades, HE research has been structured and has developed.  For many of us this has shaped our careers, because [the REF] established criteria against which our research is evaluated and our careers have developed, so from that point of view, whether we like it or not – and we could have a huge conversation about REF, and its good points and bad points – but whether we like it or not, it’s really the prime working context within which much of this works.

So, a few key principles [see Slide 2].  The idea of the REF was to establish a sense of where excellence was, across the piece, within Higher Education institutions, and to reward it.  As Helen has already pointed out, there was a financial settlement as a result of these evaluations, so if you did well in the REF then more money came to you – there’s more complexity to it, but that’s the basic principle – and that funding was and still is called QR funding.  The basic principle we have always subscribed to in the REF is that it should be assessment by peer review, so it is your colleagues, it is our colleagues as we go through a REF process, who evaluate our research – peer review.  The very first version in this country happened in 1986, and that was the first year of my degree at Goldsmiths, so it really has shaped my career quite considerably, and I know that goes for many people in the room.  At that point it was known as the Research Assessment Exercise.   The census period happens at six- or seven-year intervals, the idea being this gives you a substantial amount of time to establish a good menu of top-quality research outputs, and whether you’re a composer, or a performer or a musicologist – whatever form of output your research takes – that is something that positions you as appropriate to be put forward, provided you can make the case for its excellence.   So the outputs, as you can see there, were judged, or have been judged, by criteria relating to their international significance, originality and rigour.   Those are the three key points that will continue, we understand, to be the criteria used to evaluate research in future exercises.  And we anticipate the next one will be in 2020.

The outputs, i.e. your research, go into a formula that also takes into account the impact of your department’s research, and in some cases if you go into an academic job which has a component of research in it, the impact of your research will be part of the calculation of the excellence of your unit’s performance in research.  Environment – how good is it to be a researcher in your unit, in your university, in your conservatoire?  That’s another element of the formula.  Cranking the handle, coming out the other end will be an evaluation of your unit in your university – in that particular discipline – its overall performance.

For those who haven’t looked at them already, there’s a link at the bottom, there, to the 2014 results.  We are sub-panel 35 of 36, which gives you some indication of the huge extent of this project, the REF project.  The amount of money, time, hours, processes, planning, administration and bureaucracy tied up both within institutions and within the REF itself, is astonishing – just imagine if you converted that into a pot of money for funding research!  Anyway, that would be a different landscape and I’m talking about this landscape.   Metrics don’t figure in our discipline … yet!  But it’s quite possible that they will do in the future, and that’s something that we need to keep a watchful eye out for.

So, that’s a little bit about what we’ve currently got.  Just a point about that ‘significance, originality, rigour’ thing: if you read the REF material, and there will be a link in the slides for you to follow if you go through this in your own time, it’s quite clear, as far as you can be, about what is meant by significance, originality and rigour; so when you’re writing abstracts, when you’re planning projects, when you’re talking about your research, try to be thinking about those kinds of issues and making the case for why this matters – why should we care about this research, what does it achieve, and what is it based on?  Those kinds of issues you can start to be thinking about in the planning process, but also as you’re starting to put your abstracts together and as you’re putting your publications together.  That in itself will help to shape the way your research develops, but also how you’re presenting it to future readers, which of course will include a future REF panel.

OK, ‘Challenges and Changes’ [see Slide 3].  Open-access publication is the one we’ve really got to watch out for – it’s already something required of us, in one form or another, for journal articles, but appearing on the horizon is that this becomes something that’s available or required of us as we publish monographs, and this will impact on you if you’re thinking about which publisher to go with if you’re in the position of producing a book.  That’s something you need to be aware of, because the open-access publishers for books aren’t necessarily those that are regarded in the field as the most prestigious.  So that’s something to bear in mind and a conversation to have within your groups, but also with your supervisor and mentors.

Moving on, impact is likely to become more important.  It’s been quite a controversial element of the REF process, and everybody is aware there’s a part of our community who would just like it to go away.  Unfortunately it’s not going to go away, it’s going to come back, and probably bite us even harder than it did last time (laughing).  It’s going to become more important; it’s going to become more sophisticated.  Your institutions and your own documentation of your own research career will need to become more sophisticated in documenting the impact of your work – how can you show somebody, that culturally, socially or economically, your work makes a difference?  If you have somebody write to you after a concert saying ‘your new interpretation of that Paganini violin caprice made me hear the piece completely differently’.  Brilliant!  That’s exactly what you need – put it in your file – that will be useful for later.  Those kinds of documentation that allow you to complete the circle – here’s my research, this is what I did, this is how a member of the public responded to it, this is how a recording company responded to it and followed it through – those kinds of documentation will be very useful for you in the future, when you are compiling your impact case study.

The role of the 300-word statement in practice-led submissions: I’m aware that there are composers and performers here – you have an opportunity in 300 words to describe the research component of your work.  Now this is hugely controversial – many composers would say ‘if you can’t hear it, I’m not going to point it out for you’ – and that is a point of view.  I’m not sure quite how that will transfer into good REF results in the future, but it’s a discussion within our community.  How are we going to use that 300-word statement?  How are we going to make that statement count, not only for the benefit of our own work as researchers and composers, but also, going forward, for how people are seeing the discipline, and how people are understanding composition and its claim to be research?  Similarly, with performance.

There is a review of the REF happening at the moment – the findings will be reported in summer 2016.  This will review what happened last time, and will be putting in place recommendations for tweaks or shifts to the framework for the future REF exercise.  Just following up on Laura’s point, there are likely to be further recommendations based on equality and diversity issues that emerged in the last REF and are continually being considered by the REF body – that’s the work of the EDAP committee, and there’s a link on the slide there to have a look at if you have time.

Just going to spin through this next slide really quickly [see Slide 4] – why do we network?  We’re at a conference and we’re busy networking over coffee, over lunch, after people’s papers – that is something we do, but have we stopped to wonder why we’re doing it?  Collaboration is very much a part of the research landscape, and we are evaluated on our ability to do this informally, largely because it leads to more concrete outcomes.  Collaboration allows you to broaden the reach of your work – if you are known in your field, that carries a lot of significance, and also it allows you to improve your research, to know what is new and innovative, and significant, original and rigorous about it, more than you would if you were working on your own, in your office, on a project without interacting with anyone else.  So the sense of being part of a disciplinary community, but also a group of researchers who are concerned about the same things you are, comes through in the quality of the writing, so although it can be scary at coffee time, when you really want to talk to somebody but you feel like you’re on your own, grit your teeth and do it, because it will build your skills in that area and you will reap the benefits as a researcher.  A few further points there on the screen: networking can lead to collaborative grant applications (these are all things to be aiming at as you go forward as a researcher) and also be aware of the impression we are getting from the research councils at the moment of the need for researchers to be meeting the ‘grand challenges’.  The big challenges that are affecting mankind today, for example environmental and climate-change issues, are themes that as researchers we are being encouraged to respond to.   Keith’s presentation yesterday – his keynote – really showed how ecomusicology particularly, and some of the developments in ethnomusicology have been a part of that.

Very quickly, turning to the review of UK funding for research last year, conducted by Paul Nurse, the medical researcher – he was the author of the report [see Slide 5].   There are some key things that come out of this, and it is likely that these will happen.  It is at this point just a report and a set of recommendations, but the word on the street is that this is how things are going to develop in the future.   All of the research councils are going to be brought together under one organization – Research UK – and this is going to come under direct government control via a chief executive who reports to BIS (the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills).  Does anybody see any issues with that?  Is there a potential pitfall there?  Traditionally the dual funding model that’s operated in this country has kept research at arm’s length, really, from government agendas.  What’s going on here?  [pause]  They’re coming together.  You can just imagine there is an opportunity and a potential for government control of research agendas to become more significant.  And it was enshrined in the Haldane principle a few years ago that that should not happen, so we do need to keep an eye on this.  There are lots of assurances in this document that it’s not going to happen, but the mechanism and structures that are being set up suggest that it may well happen – we don’t want research to be overly controlled by governmental agendas.  OK, a few issues about cuts and funding there, but I’ll move on …

Because what I wanted to discuss next [see Slide 6] is how in a job interview such as we might imagine ourselves to be facing at some point in the future (for an academic job with research in it) might the questions we could be asked at that point be things we could be thinking about beforehand and preparing ourselves to respond to really effectively and creatively?  So that’s what I wanted just to focus on briefly.  These sorts of questions are the things you might be asked as you go forward for a job interview.  How would you describe your research?  You know you’re likely to be talking to a non-musician, at least one, on the interview panel.  Develop a way of pitching your research – coming to conferences like this will help, as will going to interdisciplinary conferences – how would you describe your research, its significance, originality and rigour, to somebody who’s not right there in your field and doesn’t understand the nitty gritty of what it is you are doing?  Other things that you might be asked: what would you do in your first six months?  I had this conversation a couple of days ago because I was involved in a psychology interview, and this was one of the favourite questions the panel came up with.  (They were all psychologists and I was the external chair.)   They said to me, ‘if they say, “oh, well I’ll just get to know people and, you know, I’ll get to know the students and I’ll settle in”, then we don’t want those people – that’s not going to get the job.  We want those people to say, “yes, I’ll get to know people, but I’ll also want to follow this output, I want to put this grant application in place, I want to pursue this collaboration; this is my new research question I’ll be moving forward on for the next two years’ – these are the sorts of responses that they would expect you to be able to give to that sort of question.  Key milestones – do plan!  Be able to talk about where you are going as a researcher and be future-oriented.  When you are working on your PhD it can be very difficult to think about anything else.  And of course, there is nothing else other than your PhD, for anybody, is there?!  But you need to, at this point – and it’s hard to do it, but you need to, at this point, also be thinking about where this PhD is going to take you – what are you going to do with that PhD research when it’s finished?  So that’s also a good question to be thinking about.

Because these sorts of questions and the commitments you make, and the plans you make, are what are going to shape you if you do get that job, as you go through probation, appraisal and research audits, and promotion processes.  These are the targets – the moving targets, to a certain extent – these are the things that will help you to orientate yourself as you build your career in research in higher education.

So, a few guidelines, really, to help you to achieve that [see Slide 7].  It may seem a bit ‘noddy’, but I put ‘read the REF guidelines’ at the top of this list, because actually there were a few of my colleagues – not in my institution, obviously – but there were a few colleagues who didn’t go anywhere near the REF2014 paperwork.  There is a set of guidelines online – it’s a meaty document.  If you’re being evaluated by these sets of criteria and this framework, understand what it is, learn the language, understand where it’s going, and understand how it relates to you and how you develop.  The same for funders, as well.  Also look for synergies, through websites, through going to conferences, through building your own communities; consult others, and seek a critical friend for friends or mentors.  And while you should be planning, don’t miss the things that fall into your lap – the opportunities that just pop up in the moment can take you in really interesting directions.  OK, we do want to have time for some questions, but we also want to leave to time to play you the video … [see: The Value of a Music Degree: Allison Balsom]

Zaina: Thank you, Professor Cowgill.

[Applause]

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