Stern Review

Lord Nicholas Stern makes recommendations on the future operation of the REF.

Published in July 2016, the independent review of university research funding by Lord Nicholas Stern makes recommendations on the future operation of the REF.

The review examines the allocation of university research funding by funding councils and how it can be more efficiently allocated so that universities can focus on carrying out world-leading research.

Lord Stern's report outlines key principles of how the REF should be managed and issued 12 recommendations:


  • Lower burden on HEIs and Panels
  • Less game playing
  • Less personalisation and more institutionally focused (less emphasis on individuals)
  • HEI recognition for investment
  • More rounded view of research activity
  • Interdisciplinary emphasis
  • Broaden impact
  • Develop public engagement further to include impact on curricula and/or pedagogy


All research active staff should be returned in the REF. HEI's could select which staff to return in 2014. HEFCE are proposing all staff with a 'significant responsibility for research' should be returned in 2021.
Outputs should be submitted at UoA level with a set average number per FTE but with flexibility for some faculty to submit more and others less than the average. The expectation was 4 outputs per person returned (less could be returned under special circumstances). The new guidance suggests more outputs could be submitted by certain individuals and 0 or 1 for others.

Outputs should not be portable.

Previously outputs stayed with the individual when they moved to a different HEI. New guidance suggests the institution where the output was authored will be able to return it even if the author has left.
Panels should continue to assess on the basis of peer review. However, metrics should be provided to support panel members in their assessment; and panels should be transparent about their use. Transparency of metrics use is new, but it is unclear how this will be delivered.
Institutions should be given more flexibility to showcase their interdisciplinary and collaborative impacts by submitting ‘institutional’ level impact case studies, part of a new institutional level assessment. An institutional level case study may be introduced for the first time. This may prove tricky as the case study would cover a wide range of disciplines and will be difficult to review.

Impact must be based on research of demonstrable quality. However, case studies could be linked to a research activity and a body of work as well as to a broad range of research outputs.

In 2014, case studies had to be based on 2* outputs or higher.

Guidance on the REF should make it clear that impact case studies should not be narrowly interpreted, need not solely focus on socio-economic impacts but should also include impact on government policy, on public engagement and understanding, on cultural life, on academic impacts outside the field; and impacts on teaching.

REF 2021 may provide the opportunity for HEIs to demonstrate impact through other areas such as public engagement and teaching.

A new, institutional level Environment assessment should include an account of the institution’s future research environment strategy, a statement of how it supports high quality research and research- related activities, including its support for interdisciplinary and cross- institutional initiatives and impact. It should form part of the institutional assessment and should be assessed by a specialist, cross-disciplinary panel.

Much the same as 2014.
That individual UoA environment statements are condensed, made complementary to the institutional level environment statement and include those key metrics on research intensity specific to the UoA. Statements will be shorter.
Wider Context
Recommendations Change to Ref 2014

Where possible, REF data and metrics should be open, standardised and combinable with other research funders’ data collection processes in order to streamline data collection requirements and reduce the cost of compiling and submitting information.

This may not be achievable in time for REF 2021.

That Government, and UKRI, could make more strategic and imaginative use of REF, to better understand the health of the UK research base, our research resources and areas of high potential for future development, and to build the case for strong investment in research in the UK.

Previous exercises were mostly used for allocating research funding and league tables. 

Government should ensure that there is no increased administrative burden to Higher Education Institutions from interactions between the TEF and REF, and that they together strengthen the vital relationship between teaching and research in HEIs.

This is highly unlikely, HEIs should invest in resources to manage the increased return of staff and outputs.