Blog post

The Research Excellence Framework: What is it and why is it so important for universities?

With universities now preparing for the next Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2021, Dr Stuart Archer, Researcher Developer at the University of Derby, explains what the REF is and the importance of universities taking part.

By Stuart Archer - 1 October 2018

For those of us who both carry out and support research at universities around the UK, the words 'Research Excellence Framework', or REF for short, has become a regular part of our daily conversations. It's important, therefore, to ask why the REF is important to universities and what we need to do about it.

What is the REF?

Around 65% of research carried out in UK universities is funded by public money. The REF is a way of accounting what has been done with this money. It is a detailed review of the quality research that is carried out in the UK, and the benefits that this research has to society in its broadest sense. It is not a new thing - the assessment of research in this manner has been carried out in the UK since 1986. The results of this are used by the government, and other bodies who fund research, to determine where the most effective use of this money will be. The last REF exercise was conducted across universities in 2014.

How will this be done?

The key here is that the REF is all about assessing research. To help this, research subjects are broken down into 34 separate areas called Units of Assessment (UoA). These cover disciplines such as engineering, education, physical and social sciences, and art and design. Universities will submit a number of research outputs into the UoA that they fit with best. These outputs can include things like published journal articles, books, portfolios or creative work, to name but a few. These outputs are then examined by a panel of independent experts - a process called peer review.

What is research impact?

For the REF in 2021, a measure of research impact will become more important in determining a university's overall score. Impact is quite a broad term. You can think of it as the good that comes from the university's research, for example, what is the benefit of that research beyond academia? As a large proportion of research in the UK is funded by public money, having an idea of the benefit that research has is important as it gives an indication of what "bang for their buck" funders are receiving.

The first time research impact was measured in this way was in the REF assessment in 2014. It's fair to say that is a difficult thing to do. Many aspects of impact, such as policy changes, quality of life improvements or simple public awareness, are difficult to quantify - how do you put a numerical value on these things? This has been recognised for REF2021, and further guidance on the use of things like 'metrics', which allow some degree of measurement of factors related to impact, has been provided. Overall, it's arguably a good thing that impact data is being collected, especially as that data is freely available to anyone who wants to look at it. This allows detailed research to be done on how research relates to impact, and how it's measured in different subject areas. This could lead to better methods in future REF excercises for measuring impact, helping researchers and universities to maximise the benefits of their research.

The final piece of the research puzzle is looking at the research environment within the university. For example, are the facilities appropriate? Is there training and development available for researchers and support staff? How do university policies help research? This covers how a university creates a good working environment to carry out high-quality research.

By assessing all of these three factors, universities are then given an overall quality score, ranging from 1*-4*, with 4* being the highest. Everyone's contribution at universities matters for the REF score; for example, support from the finance team around research income, the marketing team to promote our research to the public, or the estates team for the maintenance of research facilities, to name but a few.

What makes this so important?

A strong research base ensures that for a university like Derby, students have access to cutting edge research to support their learning and enhance the student experience. This has a knock-on effect in the region, as many students from the University go on to employment in the local area. By ensuring graduates have the most up to date skills and knowledge in their field, they can take this knowledge and apply it in practice in businesses and services. This can then contribute to economic growth in the region, benefitting the area as a whole.

There are also other ways that research can help business. The success of projects such as Knowledge Exchange Partnerships, whereby the university provides research and innovation support directly to a business to help solve a variety of challenges, are reliant on high quality research.

It is not compulsory for a university to submit their research to the REF, however all institutions that meet the right criteria will be invited to take part. It is very much in a university's best interests to submit. The REF score affects access to research funding, higher education league table results, the Teaching Excellence Framework, for which Derby was awarded Gold status, as well as other things like international student sponsorship and the reputation of a university as a place of research excellence.

Fundamentally, the higher a university scores on the REF, the more readily it will have access to money to do more research. Therefore, it's important to help achieve the best possible score in the REF - no money makes it very difficult to do research. The more research we do at the University of Derby, the more impact we will have in the region, and the better informed our teaching will become.

Find out more about the quality research taking place at the University of Derby.

For further information contact the press office at

About the author

Stuart Archer
Former Researcher (Researcher Development)

Stuart Archer is the former Lead for the Researcher Development Programme at the University of Derby. He is also a research chemist by training.