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Richard Watermeyer

This chapter introduces the concept of ‘competitive accountability’ as the response of universities in the UK to the intensification of a system of research performance management and evaluation with a particular focus on academic researchers evidencing the economic and societal impact of their research. The chapter explores the current state of higher education in the UK through the lens of marketization and neoliberalism and argues that these dominant organizational paradigms have engendered a culture of anti-intellectualism and distrust of academics, academics’ occupational precarity, and the disappearance of the public intellectual.

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Richard Watermeyer

This chapter provides a full introduction to the REF as the UK’s performance-based research funding system and considers recommendations established in a major government review focused on creating a fairer system of accountability. In so doing, the chapter explores the naivety and impotency of higher education policy in effecting positive change for the academic community and the persistence of forms of inequality spawned by the systematic manipulation by universities of research governance technologies. The theoretical perspectives of Frankfurt School luminaries Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse are adopted to illustrate the way in which the REF becomes analogous to a (high-stakes) game members of the higher education community in the UK love to hate, and a quasi-‘cultural industry’.

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Richard Watermeyer

This chapter looks at the ways in which academics and students have responded in resistance to the neoliberalization of universities in the UK and the terms of competitive accountability. It considers how academics’ non-compliance with the expectations and demands of competitive accountability causes their marginalization and exclusion from university life. It is argued, however, that this kind of enforced displacement generates powerful zones of (non)participation through which critical solidarity and collective activism are mobilized. The chapter concludes with five hypotheses concerning a counter-hegemonic response to competitive accountability.

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Richard Watermeyer

This chapter moves into the empirical heart of the book and explores the testimony of researchers represented in REF2014 impact case studies. It considers their views on the influence of a REF impact agenda on their research praxis and how a demand for the economic and societal impact of research is influencing and potentially changing research behaviours in UK universities. A REF impact agenda is seen to have produced a swing to and crowding out of applied research, a cult of impactful individuals or impact superstars, and impact as corruptive to academic researchers’ public interface. Competitive accountability is thus blamed for being corruptive to academics’ public role and contribution.

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Richard Watermeyer

This chapter explores the perspectives of evaluators populating social science and arts and humanities REF disciplinary sub-panels and their experiences of judging the economic and societal impact of research. Their accounts reflect the multiple challenges presented by REF impact and concerns regarding the seductions of ‘stylistic virtuosity’ orchestrated by impact case study (ICS) authors and their neglect of any theorization of change, in addition to the bypassing by evaluators of the evidence provided by ICS authors in making judgements of impact excellence. The chapter suggests that, through competitive accountability, new modalities of scholarly distinction emerge.

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Richard Watermeyer

This chapter considers how the impact of academic research generated in UK universities is envisaged by what is alleged to be a major research user constituency – UK parliamentarians. Parliamentarians claim that the potential for academics to have an impact on Parliament is actually limited by their ability to engage with Parliament, which itself is contingent upon academic seniority, social capital, and an ability to complement and adapt to political agendas and the specific needs of policy-makers. The value attributed to university research as evidence that might inform parliamentary debate and decision-making is, furthermore, considered to be low and some way behind the influence of industry and business and those with greater (financial) capacity for political lobbying. Competitive accountability is thus seen, in the case of the parliamentarian as research user, to produce no more than an impact phantom.

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Richard Watermeyer

This chapter explores two of the major events of the 2017–2018 academic year in the UK, namely a ‘crisis’ involving vice-chancellors’ pay and unprecedented industrial action that arose out of an academic pensions dispute. These two case studies are used to reveal how a culture of competitive accountability has caused the UK Academy to consecrate the contribution made by senior administrative leaders in universities while concomitantly desecrating the contribution of ‘rank-and-file’ academics. Large-scale sector-wide disputes of this kind are shown to reveal the potential for the disclaiming of competitive accountability.

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Richard Watermeyer

This final chapter reflects on three specific characteristics of REF impact which illuminate the influence of competitive accountability in producing undesirable behaviours and motivations among academics and their institutions. These are used as a conceptual foundation that leads to ten paradoxes which unpick the efficacy of competitive accountability as that which informs and defines academic praxis in the contemporary UK university.

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Richard Watermeyer

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Richard Watermeyer