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What is the REF?

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a system for assessing the quality of UK higher education research across all disciplines. It first took place in 2014, replacing the previous Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The next REF exercise will be conducted in 2021.

What is the REF's purpose?

  • 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.

How is the REF carried out?

The REF is a process of expert review, carried out by expert panels for each of the 34 subject-based units of assessment (UOAs), under the guidance of four main panels. Expert panels are made up of senior academics, international members, and research users.

For each submission, three distinct elements are assessed: the quality of outputs (e.g. publications, performances, and exhibitions), their impact beyond academia, and the environment that supports research.

The Stern Review

Lord Stern’s independent review in 2016 made recommendations on the future operation of the REF. It examined how university research funding can be allocated more efficiently so that universities can focus on carrying out world-leading research.

The consultation proposals built on the implementation of REF 2014 and incorporated the principles identified in Lord Stern’s Independent Review of the REF.

It included proposals intended to reduce the burden associated with the REF process while maintaining and improving incentives for research excellence.

These include recommendations relating to:
  • The submission of staff and outputs
  • The approach to the assessment of impact
  • The introduction of an institutional level assessment.
Key points from the University’s response to the consultation:
  • We favoured the existing REF 2014 Unit of Assessment structure and recommended that it should be retained for REF 2021 to give a consistent approach to the assessment.
  • We supported the inclusion in REF of all research-active staff that independently lead their own research activity. However, we noted that a more precise definition is required in the description of ‘independent researchers’.
  • We welcomed the opportunity to submit research outputs variably across our staff and the greater flexibility intended by the proposed measures.
  • We believed non-portability of outputs may be detrimental to Early Career Researchers if implemented without measures taken to mitigate this impact. If the proposals are taken forward for REF2021, we argued that ECRs should be exempt from non-portability rules in order that they can develop their careers without any unintended impediment due to the requirements of REF.
  • We were strongly in favour of the appointment of interdisciplinary champions on the sub-panel for the assessment of interdisciplinary research.

Read the University’s full response to the consultation here.