Today, the 2021 results from the Research Excellence Framework (REF) have been announced – evaluating the strength and impact of universities’ research and determining the future of research teams and their funding allocations across the UK – a pot that has approximately £2 billion of annual government funding up for grabs.
Since 2014, REF has been used by the four UK higher education funding bodies (Research England, the Scottish Funding Council, the HE Funding Council for Wales and the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland) to assess the quality of research undertaken by higher education institutes (HEIs) and determine how much research funding they can secure. REF is a key moment in the higher education (HE) calendar, with strong results accelerating research, helping secure funding and raising HEIs’ profiles, while poor performance can, in some instances, close departments and research projects.
While research is inherently collaborative, HE is a highly competitive landscape with institutions vying for top spot and for those that do well, REF provides universities with the opportunity to legitimately claim they are ‘world leading’ in respective research fields.
Through this framework, submissions are assessed based on outputs (such as publications, performances and exhibitions); the environment that supports research (how the research environment supports a continuing flow of excellent research, including the profile of PhD students); and impact beyond academia. The latter was a key differentiator from the previous framework, placing a greater emphasis on demonstrating the benefits of research to the economy, society, public policy, culture or quality of life.
Worth 20 per cent of the overall score, while giving the impression of a shift to greater societal value, the introduction of an impact assessment wasn’t universally welcomed. Critics argue that by widening the criteria it not only creates more work for universities and their academics, but that by also having to demonstrate impact encourages research with only short-term gains to be prioritised and be perceived of greater strategic value.
There are also ways to ‘play the game’, with strategic research appointments made before the census date, and the option to cherry pick which research areas and projects are put forward for assessment. Both of these factors can significantly skew the overall analysis of an institution and begs the question as to whether a university can genuinely claim research excellence in broad terms.
In addressing the latter, REF2021, for the first time, required universities to enter all staff with a “significant responsibility” for research into the assessment. There’s perhaps some ambiguity regarding how a this is defined however, this requirement has widened the exercise, with the number of academics submitting at least one research project increasing by 46 per cent.
Today’s results show that overall, 41 per cent of outputs were found to be world-leading, a significant increase from the 2014 results and a great achievement for UK research. While maintaining their strong performance, we’ve also seen several universities outside the ‘golden triangle’ of Oxford, Cambridge and London make gains which could shake up the distribution of funding, which has historically sat with predominately with these major players.
Further, Times Higher Education’s market share analysis has Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London and UCL dropping from 22 per cent to 19 per cent based on these results. It also suggests that this increase in submissions has driven stronger performance in the REF tables from institutions outside the golden triangle celebrating improvements.
This is certainly not to say that London universities, Oxford and Cambridge have dropped in performance but instead that a step has been taken towards levelling the playing field for other universities and regions that may have previously had smaller submissions assessed.
It’s not a perfect system, and there’s speculation of the future of REF but hopefully by widening the scope and continuing to place an emphasis on impact, those projects of greatest benefit to society will be championed and help solidify the reputation of the UK’s HEIs as delivering world-class, dynamic, responsive and relevant research.