Competitive accountability and the dispossession of academic identity: Haunted by an impact phantom

Richard P Watermeyer*, Michael Tomlinson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


This article discusses the intensification of research performance demands in UK universities in relation to the complex terrain of academic identity formation. It considers whether a demand for academic researchers to produce and evidence economic and societal impact – in the rewards game of the UK’s performance-based research funding system, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) – influences their self-concept as ‘engaged researchers’. While a designation of being REF impactful may be considered constitutive to a researcher’s sense of self-worth and advantageous to their professional and institutional profile, a consultation of researchers included within REF2014 impact case studies challenges these assumptions. Instead, respondents are found to complain of identity dispossession and exploitation by their universities where their public contributions are appropriated for positional gain. Their testimony confirms the prevalence of a culture of ‘competitive accountability’ (Watermeyer 2019) across UK universities which is with a systemic insatiability for ‘scholarly distinction’ (Watermeyer and Chubb 2018), causing the privileging of appearance in rationalisations of publicly funded research. Using the theoretical insights of Guy Debord (1967) and Erving Goffman (1959) it is argued that REF impact elucidates the UK higher education sector as a ‘society of the Spectacle’ that subjugates ‘authentic’ versions of the academic Self. However, REF-impact is also seen to provide an opportunity for cultural detournément and a means to elicit and concurrently invert ‘simulations’ of research praxis’, thus enabling the assertion or ‘front-staging’ of perceived and idealised academic identities.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)92-103
Number of pages12
JournalEducational Philosophy and Theory
Issue number1
Early online date2 Feb 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2 Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia.


  • academic identity
  • research governance
  • REF
  • research impact
  • UK higher education


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