Blog post

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

With universities eagerly awaiting the results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021, Amelia Kenyon, Innovation and Research Operations Officer at the University of Derby, explains what the REF is and why it is important for universities.

By Amelia Kenyon - 5 May 2022

For those who carry out or support research at UK universities, the words 'Research Excellence Framework' (or REF), have become a regular part of our daily conversations during the REF 2021 period. Having finally pressed the submit button for the University of Derby’s submission in March 2021, we are now counting down the days until the results are published on 12 May 2022.

What is the REF?

The REF is a detailed review of the research that is carried out in UK universities. Three key metrics are considered: outputs, impact and environment. The outputs are the products of research, such as journal articles, books or creative works. The impacts are the benefit of that research beyond academia. The environment is the infrastructure, support, and research culture at a university. The outcomes from the REF are used to inform the allocation of around £2 billion per year of public funding for universities’ research; this is termed ‘quality-related’ or QR funding (UKRI, 2022). The better a university scores in the REF, the more allocation they receive. This allocation does not change until the next exercise. Therefore, a key purpose of the REF is to provide accountability for this public investment in research and produce evidence of the benefits this investment has to society in its broadest sense.

How will this be done?

The REF is all about assessing research and the impact it has through expert peer review. To help this, research subjects are broken down into 34 separate areas called Units of Assessments (UoA) which sit under four main panels. Universities can then choose which UoAs they submit to. These cover disciplines such as health, education, physical and social sciences, engineering and art and design. Universities submit a number of staff, research outputs, impact case studies and an environment statement into the UoA that they fit best in. At Derby, we submitted into 10 UoAs, including 285 researchers, 661 outputs and 27 impact case studies.

What are research outputs, impact and environment?

Research outputs hold the highest weighting of 60% of the assessment. These are the products of research including published journal articles, books, portfolios or creative bodies of work, to name but a few. Examples of our research submitted to the REF 2021 can be found on our newly upgraded University of Derby Online Research Archive.

For REF 2021, the measure of research impact was given a higher weighting of 25% in determining a university's overall score compared to the previous assessment in 2014. ‘Impact’ is quite a broad term, but you can think of it as the good that comes from the university's research. For example, the benefit of that research beyond academia. As a large proportion of research in the UK is funded by public money, assessing the benefit that research has is very important. It gives an indication of value for money for the funders of the research.

Impact is shown through the submission of impact case studies, evidence-based narratives which detail how research has changed, affected, or benefited society, culture, public policy, health, wellbeing, the economy and/or the environment. As an applied University, our REF 2021 impact case studies demonstrate a range of benefits. These include championing deeper connections with nature to improve mental wellbeing, ensuring young people make good career decisions and strategies to support a greener economy.

The final piece of the submission looks at the research environment within the university, accounting for 15% of the assessment. Each UoA submits data on their research income and post-graduate research student completion numbers. An environment template is also required. This is a narrative document answering questions such as: what facilities does the unit have? What training and development are available? How does the unit advance equality, diversity and inclusion for researchers? Thus, it is the environment in which high-quality research is carried out. For REF 2021, an institutional-level environment statement was piloted which answered these questions, providing contextualisation for the UoAs.

Following the submission, panels of subject-specialist experts undertake peer review and provide individual elements with a quality score. The score ranges from 1 star – 4 stars, with 4 stars being the highest. The results received by institutions comprise of the aggregated data, which demonstrates what percentage of each element met each quality rating. For example, a UoAs impact submission could be rated at 20% 2 stars, 70% 3 stars and 10% 4 stars.

Our submission is supported by all the University departments and staff. Data is required from the Library, Human Resources, Finance and Registry teams, Marketing and Internal Comms to promote our research to the public, and the Estates team who maintain our research facilities.

What makes this so important?

A strong research base ensures that students at Derby 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 transfer this knowledge and apply it in practice in their chosen career field, contributing to innovation and economic growth. There are also other ways that our research can help businesses; the success of projects such as Knowledge Exchange Partnerships 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 are invited to take part. The REF score affects access to research funding, and higher education league table results, as well as supporting international student sponsorship and the reputation of a university as a place of research excellence.

What happens now?

The results of the REF 2021 are published on 12 May 2022. We are proud of our increases in research depth and strength at the University of Derby since the last REF in 2014. The results will be an opportunity to showcase our research and the real-world impact it has.

The funding we receive as a result of our success in the REF will support our Innovation and Research Strategic Priorities 2020-2026 and our 6 academic themes in Biomedical and Clinical Sciences, Business, Economic and Social Policy, Creative and Cultural Industries, Data Science, Public Services and Zero Carbon. Our REF 2021 submission provides the foundation to continue to enhance our research to the benefit of our students and our other stakeholders.

About the author

Amelia Kenyon

Amelia Kenyon
Innovation and Research Operations Officer

As the Innovation and Research Operations Officer, I am responsible for enhancing university-wide research operations including research assessment processes, research system management and data optimisation. Outside of work I enjoy exploring wild places with my partner in our self-build campervan, low-level mountaineering and renovating our house and garden.