REF 2021: The results are in

Universities and research academics across the UK have had a particular date firmly planted in their calendars for almost eight years now. Following a long wait since the last Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014, and a delay due to the pandemic, the latest Research Excellence Framework 2021 results were finally published on 12 May.

Since REF 2014, the University’s research power — a measure of volume of research multiplied by quality* — has risen significantly by 200%, with areas defined as ‘world-leading’, ‘internationally excellent’ and having outstanding or very considerate impact in terms of reach and significance.

In recent years, research has become a fundamental part of the University’s identity as an academic institution and the latest REF demonstrates how we continue to achieve impactful applied research that benefits society as a whole. So, what is REF and why is it such an important element of the University’s Innovation and Research Strategy?

What is REF?

Professor Warren Manning, Provost Innovation and Research, explains what the REF results are and how they impact all aspects of the University. 

Video of Professor Warren Manning, Provost Innovation and Research, explaining what the REF results are and how they impact all aspects of the University. 

View Research Excellence Framework (REF) - what is it all about? video transcript

The REF is an acronym used widely within universities and the sector which stands for Research Excellence Framework. It is the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions, through expert review by funding bodies: Research England, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), and the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland (DfE).

Most of the research carried out in UK universities is funded by government and other bodies using public money. The REF provides all parties with the benchmarks and accountability needed to make this investment beneficial to society and crucially, informs the future allocation of funding for maximum impact.

Expert panels for 34 subject-based Units of Assessment (UoAs) review each submission from universities using three elements: the quality of outputs, their impact beyond academia and the environment that supports the research. 

The outcome of this assessment awards an overall quality profile, based on one to four stars, to each submission and for each of the three elements of the assessment (outputs, impact and environment).

Professor Clare Brindley

What we want at Derby is a vibrant, sustainable research environment. You need a lively research environment with cutting edge research and exposure to this research by our students because if you have not got this, you are not a university.

Professor Clare Brindley
Associate Provost in the University’s Research and Knowledge Exchange Office

Derby’s REF journey

Professor Clare Brindley, Associate Provost in the University of Derby’s Research and Knowledge Exchange Office, has witnessed first-hand this latest cycle of the REF. Here, she explains how Derby has performed in this REF and how far the University has come as a research-focused institution in such a short space of time:

“Our 2021 REF submission shows there's been a significant increase in both the volume and quality of our outputs. We have submitted 27 Impact Case Studies across 10 Units of Assessment, which not only shows our applied research expertise but also demonstrates our civic commitment and knowledge exchange offer at Derby.

“The change is stark and goes beyond the targets we set for REF 2021, including a 347% increase in research income, 147% increase in staff submitted and 38% increase in PhD students.”

World-leading and internationally excellent research has been recognised in several of the University’s Units of Assessment, including Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences (67%), Education (63%), Allied Health Professions (60%), and Art and Design (60%).

Quality of outputs is assessed in terms of originality, significance and rigour. Research at Derby in Computer Science and Informatics (74%), Social Work and Social Policy (71%), Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences (69%), Art and Design (66%) and Communication, Culture and Media Studies (58%) is ‘world-leading’ and ‘internationally excellent’ against this.

The criteria for assessing impact is based on reach and significance. 100% of the University’s research impact in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences is classified as 4* (outstanding) and 3* (very considerable). 83% in Education is classified as 4* (outstanding) and 3* (very considerable).

The University also has areas of 4* (outstanding) research impact in Allied Health Professions, Business and Management Studies, and Social Work and Social Policy. Areas of 3* (very considerable) research impact include Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Computer Science and Informatics, Engineering, Art and Design, and Communication, Cultural and Media Studies.

Finally, the research environment criteria for REF is assessed in terms of vitality and sustainability and how this enables research. Aspects of our research environment are recognised as 3*- being conducive to producing research of internationally excellent quality in Allied Health Professionals, Business and Management Studies, Social Work and Social Policy, Education, Art and Design and Communication and Cultural Studies.

Investing in the future

The research studies submitted to REF 2021 are completed or ongoing, the impact has been evaluated by the panel and the metrics are rising but what does REF really mean for the University, and its students and staff?

“The Research Excellence Framework is an indicator of our research performance here at Derby, which ultimately decides the quality related research income we receive from public investment in research,” Clare continues.

two researchers working on study with plants

“What we want at Derby is a vibrant, sustainable research environment. A powerful REF outcome enables us to enhance and support our research environment through the recruitment, development and retention of our academic staff, and the improvement of our facilities, which in turn delivers a curriculum and opportunities for students that are underpinned by impactful research.

“You need a lively research environment with cutting edge research and exposure to this research by our students because if you have not got this, you are not a university. If you are a teaching only institution, you are not a university because your curriculum needs to be informed by the most up to date thought provoking ideas.

“Our students are exposed to cutting edge, internationally significant research, and are given the opportunity to be involved in this research through initiatives such as our Undergraduate Research Scholarship Scheme, which allows them to develop new knowledge and skills and to focus in depth on an area of personal research interest."

To support the ongoing development and fulfilment of career aspirations among its staff, the University offers mentoring programmes and an internal promotions process where staff can work towards becoming associate professors or professors. Further investment and changes have been made during this REF cycle.

“Our annual researcher development programme offers a range of activities and opportunities to upskill staff, from how to supervise doctoral students to holding a focus group, to research techniques and developing impact case studies," says Clare.

“The University has recently launched Research Manager, a digital system that supports researchers and professional services teams at every stage of the externally funded project lifecycle, REF, Ethics and the doctoral student journey. We have also introduced an Impact Officer role dedicated to each college. This will really help with our next REF submission because the data is already being captured and analysed at the beginning of the process.

“The infrastructure to support staff with research spans several professional services, including the Registry, digital, HR, the Library, marketing and internal comms, and we are now seeing that the importance of developing impact case studies has spread across the institution. In fact, we are already talking about the impact case studies we have for the next REF submission.”

The impact element for REF accounts for 25% of the assessment. How is the University’s research affecting change or benefit to the economy, society, policy, culture and quality of life?

“Our research is having national and international impact, which cascades throughout our local and regional community. Within our REF Impact Case Studies, you will see Professor Alex Nunn's case study which involves working with Derby Theatre and disadvantaged youth. Professor Ray Bull’s work looks at how police interviews should happen, which has been adopted by the United Nations. Our health-related impact case studies are helping to support and improve the quality of life for people with chronic diseases, and we are supporting small and medium sized enterprises with strategies to support a greener economy.

“Our research translates in terms of our knowledge exchange offer and also demonstrates our civic commitment. We are an applied research organisation with expertise that can be applied to the challenges our external stakeholders face.

“It enables critical thinking and skills to be developed and gives exposure to tools and techniques. Results that can help students and our wider stakeholders tackle some of the challenges that they are going to face in their careers and during their curriculum.

“The University’s submission alone is in a lot stronger position, and crucially we have improved the culture around research at the University since 2014. Above and beyond any positive results outcome, REF 2021 has provided a great foundation for us to continue to build upon and meet our ambitions.”

samples being taken from a fish tank in a lab

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