After a longer than usual wait, the results of the Research Exercise Framework 2021, otherwise known as REF 2021, have finally been made public, and we at the Wilberforce Institute are very proud of our success. We got a 4* rating, the highest level possible, for our impact case study, ‘The Wilberforce Legacy: Using historical and contemporary research to meet the challenge of Modern Slavery’.
For those of you who don’t know, the purposes of REF 2021 were threefold:
- To provide accountability for public investment in research and produce evidence of the benefits of this investment.
- To provide benchmarking information and establish reputational yardsticks, for use within the HE sector and for public information.
- To inform the selective allocation of funding for research.
In short, the government uses the REF exercise to determine how much research funding each higher education institution will receive each year: the four UK higher education funding bodies use it to inform the allocation of circa £2 billion in public funding invested in research annually. The key facts about the REF are available here.
As a format the REF was last used to assess the quality of research in higher education institutions in 2014, so it’s been seven years since any assessment of this kind has been undertaken. The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), a similar exercise which the REF replaced, had from its inception in 1986, taken place approximately once every five years. It had been introduced that year by Margaret Thatcher’s government to determine the amount of funding that was to be allocated to individual UK Universities at a time of tight budgetary restrictions. A number of changes to the way in which research is assessed have been made over the years. This included the introduction in 2008 of a four-point quality rating scale, rising from 1* for ‘Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour’, to the much sought after 4*: ‘Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour’.
The REF involved a process of expert review, carried out by expert panels for 34 subject-based units of assessment (UOAs), under the guidance of four main panels. These expert panels consisted of senior academics, international members, and research users.
Assessors had to review research from three distinct perspectives:
- the quality of the outputs (e.g. publications, performances, and exhibitions)
- their impact beyond academia, and
- the quality of the environment that is provided to support research.
Significantly, the REF was the first exercise to assess the impact of research outside the higher education sector itself. Impact was defined as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. This idea has rightly continued to gain traction: following on from a review of the effectiveness of REF 2014, more emphasis was placed in the 2021 round on the importance of impact. There was also a call for interdisciplinary collaborations to be more widely rewarded.
Both of these metrics play to the strengths of the Wilberforce Institute. First we are by design an interdisciplinary research institute, bringing together history, social science, heritage and law, as we seek to use an understanding of the past to inform our approach to the present. We also employ practitioners who work on issues around social auditing, on raising awareness of modern slavery, and on taking action to prevent it. This means that our interdisciplinary research can have a direct impact.
Despite our small team of people, the 4* rating of our impact case study revealed just how successful our efforts had been in the period covered by the REF exercise, 2014-2020. The study focused on two particular areas of success. The first concerned the quantification of slavery. The Institute had taken a key role in developing the metrics for the Global Slavery Index (GSI), which provided the first comprehensive and accessible measure of the extent of modern slavery in 167 countries around the world.
Aimed at informing practitioners and policymakers, the GSI was disseminated around the world, and has been used by governments, researchers, NGOs and charities to support the liberation of slaves and their reintegration into society. In addition, Professor Kevin Bales, lead author of the 2014 GSI, built on its success to develop (in collaboration with the Chief Scientific Officer at the Home Office) a new methodology for calculating modern slavery in the Britain. The Multiple Systems Estimation (MSE) framework resulted in a radical reassessment by the UK Government of the number of people enslaved in Britain. That number – of between 10,000 and 13,000 men, women and children – was roughly four times the figure produced by the National Crime Agency’s Human Trafficking Centre in 2013. Taken together, the GSI and the MSE transformed our understanding of the prevalence of modern slavery in the UK. In doing so, it provided the impetus for a new British Government Modern Slavery Strategy and Bill, and paved the way for the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015.
The second area of success concerned anti-slavery opinion building. Professor John Oldfield, now Associate and Emeritus Professor of the Wilberforce Institute, was instrumental in developing the concept of an antislavery ‘usable past’ that demonstrated a continuous link between the past and the present, through what can be described as an active ‘protest memory’. He used these ideas to develop two Arts and Humanities Research Council funded projects, the web resource Stolen Lives and The Antislavery Usable Past. Together, the Institute’s interdisciplinary team developed new methods of presenting and disseminating information by juxtaposing the experiences of enslaved people from the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries in an easy to access format. Between 2015 and 2021, the Stolen Lives website had 34,000 pageviews and 8,185 views of the ‘Repairing Broken Lives’ video resources.
Alongside Stolen Lives (2015) and the Antislavery Usable Past project (2019), the Institute designed and delivered a number of public campaigns to raise awareness of historical and modern slavery, using music, film, teaching aids, exhibitions and web resources. These included the #HiddenInPlainSight campaign (launched in November 2016, which placed ‘human packaging’ at high-footfall locations), and the #BreakTheChain campaign (launched in London in 2018, using a ‘human vending machine’), which drew attention to the 25 million people trapped in forced labour around the world.
These opinion-building initiatives have been adopted by many key stakeholders and have directly informed national public broadcasting campaigns. Stolen Lives, for example, has raised awareness of slavery at over 60 different public events and its educational materials have been used in schools across the UK. This resource has also had international impact, most notably in Sierra Leone, West Africa, where it proved the inspiration for an exhibition on modern slavery at the National Museum of Sierra Leone in 2017, the first of its kind. Subsequently, the British Council in Sierra Leone, working in collaboration with the Institute, arranged for the translation of songs from Stolen Lives into local languages and used them as resources in its ‘Connecting Classrooms’ programme. To date this has reached over 30,000 students and helped to raise awareness of modern slavery in Sierra Leone. Finally, and importantly, the work of the Institute was shared with local schools and communities in the Humber region. Performances from Stolen Lives have also been held at Hull’s Freedom Festival which attracts audiences of over 130,000.
Academic research is always of its time, and the numbers estimated in the GSI and MSE were very soon out of date. Some of these numbers were included in the Stolen Lives project, so that here too, there is information that is no longer current. But other elements of Stolen Lives continue to have relevance. Reflecting recently on the impact of Stolen Lives seven years on, Professor Oldfield noted that although he would do some things differently now, much of the content in the collection remains as impactful as it did at its creation. You can of course judge for yourselves by visiting the website.
Professor Oldfield reflecting on the impact of Stolen Lives during the recent workshop, ‘Strategies for encouraging children and young people to engage with human rights’, held at the Wilberforce Institute on Thursday May 12, 2022.
Receiving a 4* rating for our impact case study ‘The Wilberforce Legacy: Using historical and contemporary research to meet the challenge of Modern Slavery’, is hugely satisfying, not least because it reveals to us that we can make a difference. But it also reminds us that there is always more to understand about the nature of slavery and exploitation, in the past and the present. Our success in REF 2021 will help us to continue that research.