About REF

What is the REF and why does it matter?

What is the REF and why does it matter?

The four UK higher education funding bodies allocate around £2 billion per year of quality-related research funding to UK universities with the aim of supporting a dynamic and internationally competitive UK research sector.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the system used by the funding bodies to assess the quality of research in UK higher education institutions and to inform the distribution of these funds.  The REF replaced the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), last conducted in 2008.

As well as informing funding allocations, the REF provides accountability for public investment in research, demonstrates its benefits, and provides important reputational yardsticks and benchmarking information about the research performance of UK universities.

The REF matters because it affects both our income and our reputation.

How it works

Every six years, institutions are asked to submit examples of their best research to be assessed by a team of academics and industry experts.

The REF2014 was carried out in 36 subject-based units of assessment (UoAs).

These expert sub-panels - comprising 898 academics and 259 research users - carried out the assessment. The sub-panels worked under the guidance of four main panels, producing a sub-profile for each element (outputs, impact and environment) which was combined into an overall quality profile.

The three key elements

The REF will focus on assessing three elements, which together reflect the key characteristics of research excellence:

  1. The quality of research outputs is the main element of assessment (60%).
  2. The impact of research considers the effect of the research on the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life (25%).
  3. The vitality of the research environment considers the research strategy, infrastructure and environment, including research income and research degrees awarded (15%).

The overall quality profile

The primary outcome of the assessment is to award an overall quality profile to each submission, showing the proportion of the submission that meets a series of quality-starred levels.

For REF2014 these starred levels were defined as:

REF Starred Levels
4* Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
3* Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which falls short of the highest standards of excellence.
2* Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
1* Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
Unclassified Quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment.

The above definitions may change when REF 2021 guidelines are published.