Research Excellence Framework (REF)

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is as an assessment designed to assess the quality of research carried out by British universities. Its goal is to support a world-class, dynamic and responsive research system within UK higher education. The REF does this by providing: accountability for public investment; benchmarks for the university; and a process for informing the allocation of block grant research funding from the UK Government.

The REF has existed since 2014 when it replaced the previous Research Assessment Exercise. The next REF results will be published in 2021.

This page contains various resources on the REF and related content on research performance and assessment.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the system for assessing the quality and impact of research at UK higher education institutions.

Institutions are assessed on three criteria:

  • Quality of research outputs
  • Evidence of impact beyond the academic world
  • Quality of its research-supporting environment

An institution’s research is assessed by several expert panels on a subject-level, and is then awarded a star rating from 0 to 4, where zero stars is sub-par, one star meets the nationally acceptable standards across the various criteria, and four stars is world-leading.

Following a review of the REF by Lord Stern in 2015, three additional priorities for REF 2021 were identified:

  • provide a rich evidence base to inform strategic decisions about national research priorities
  • create strong performance incentives for researchers and HEIs
  • inform decisions of resource allocation by individual HEIs

Changes to the REF assessment

The REF 2021 assessment themes are as follows:

Outputs: These consist of outputs produced by universities during the assessment period of 1st January 2014 to 31st December 2020. In 2014 'Outputs' accounted for 65% of the assessment. In 2021 it will account for for 60%.

Impact: This has increased from 20% in 2014 to 25% of the assessment in 2021. 'Impact' covers case studies which detail the benefits from university research.

Environment: This assesses the environment universities have to support their research. Areas covered includes research strategy; staff development and support for post-graduate researchers; approaches to collaboration; equality and diversity; data on research income; and post-graduate degrees awarded. This makes up 15% of the assessment.

Other changes for REF 2021

  • Universities will be required to include all staff who have a significant responsibility for research
  • Universities will submit a portfolio of work or outputs produced during the REF period, rather than a number of papers per person as in 2014. This can include outputs from staff who have left an institution so long as the output was made during the REF period. In some cases this will mean that two institutions may include the same piece of research in their portfolios if the researcher in question has moved from institution to the other over the assessment period. Guidance on staff and outputs can be found on the REF website here.
  • Impact encompasses a broader definition to emphasise public engagement and to include impact on teaching.

Assessments are conducted by a subject panel, and the ratings are decided by this group. Each panel includes research experts in their particular subject, as well as members with expertise in international, interdisciplinary, or the wider use and benefits of research. The chair of the sub-panel for Business and Management Studies is Professor Robert Blackburn, Associate Dean (Research), Kingston Business School. The full list of subject panel members is available here.