Research Excellence Framework 2021: Analysis of results for business & management

Download the report: Research Excellence Framework 2021: Analysis of results for business & management

The results from the latest national census of research activity have now been released and paint a picture of the UK research landscape across every discipline. Looking specifically at the Research Excellence Framework (REF) for business and management studies, the results reaffirm many things which we already knew and shines a light on some new dynamics. The data presented in this Chartered ABS analysis of the REF offer an excellent overview of the 108 universities who submitted material for review under the social sciences panel (panel C) under Unit of Assessment 17.

Starting with what we already knew, university level provision of business and management happens at scale in the UK. In education terms we know that around 1 in 3 of all international students, and indeed 1 in 6 of all students in UK universities, study business related degrees. Over 18,000 staff educate this diverse and large population of students. In relation to research, the latest data reflect a conscious change from previous research assessment exercises, with REF 2021 intended to review the work of all staff with significant responsibility for research. The results show that business and management studies comprised 6,995 staff this time around, which almost doubled the number of staff returned at REF2014 where selectivity was permitted. The increase in staff returned represented a significant assessment burden for panel members with over 16,000 outputs and over 500 impact cases being reviewed.

We also know that our schools of business and management vary enormously in shape, size, and mission. This too is reflected in the summary data presented here, with several institutions returning fewer than 10 staff and several others returning over 150 staff. That diversity in scale is mirrored by diversity in outcomes in terms of overall grade point average (GPA). The results presented here offer various slices through the dataset to consider both the overall outcome, the three main components of outputs, impact and environment and rankings expressed in terms of research power as well as an analysis in terms of long-standing mission groups.

However, the results shine a light on some things which were, perhaps, less visible until the data were released. The clear intention in removing selectivity was to gain a more accurate impression of the whole. Other sources indicate that the total number of academics working in UK business schools is around 18,000. The REF2021 therefore makes clear that a majority of staff in UK business schools are employed on contracts which do not include significant responsibility for research. Even within the group eligible for inclusion because of significant responsibility for research, the data highlights that amongst 108 submissions, 58 universities returned 100% of eligible staff whilst a further 18 universities returned 25% or less of eligible staff. As the ruminations continue about the shape of any future research assessment, eligibility criteria are bound to be a lively topic of discussion. And of course, we don’t yet know the funding consequences of the outcomes that are reported here. The stated policy intention of growing the percentage of GDP spent on research sits next to evident strain on public finances and we will all wait with bated breath to see the financial consequences of results.

Finally, as you examine the analysis in this report it is worth noting the temptation to draw different conclusions from the same data. Institutional rankings vary significantly dependent on the mix of volume and quality being measured and the importance placed on outputs, impact or environment. Whilst this generates a series of defensible claims for marketing materials it is also a reflection of different institutional models, missions and starting points. The sector as a whole is improving.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the outcomes is, however, that they point to particular signature strengths in particular kinds of business schools. As we all strive to improve absolute and relative performance across all measures, it is perhaps salutary to remember that improvement takes patience and focus. Hopefully the analysis presented here will help you draw focus as we begin the long process of preparing for the next census.

We look forward to further discussion of these issues at the upcoming Chartered ABS Annual Research Conference (21 June, London), which will include a keynote panel discussion on REF 2021 and the future of the REF, featuring Professor Rob Blackburn, Chair of Sub-Panel 17: Business and Management Studies for REF 2021. For more information and to register for the event please click here.

Professor Robert MacIntosh, Faculty Pro Vice Chancellor - Business and Law, Northumbria University; Chair, Chartered ABS