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The results of the UK-wide assessment of university research, conducted through the latest Research Excellence Framework (REF), have been published. The 2021 assessment process has identified a substantial proportion of world-leading research across all UK nations and English regions, and across the full range of subject areas. For the first time, the assessment included the submission of all staff with significant responsibility for research, meaning the results provide a unique insight into the quality of research conducted across the breadth of university activity.

The REF provides a robust and thorough assessment of the quality of universities’ research in all disciplines, providing accountability for public investment in research and demonstrating the benefits of that investment.

In total, 157 UK universities participated, submitting over 76,000 academic staff. Submissions included research outputs, examples of the wider benefits of research and evidence about the research environment. This material was assessed by a series of expert panels comprising UK and international researchers, external users of research and experts in interdisciplinary research. Overall, the panels judged 41 per cent of the submitted work to be ‘world-leading’ (4*) and a further 43 per cent to be ‘internationally excellent’ (3*).

The assessment provides rich information on the strengths of UK university research that will be helpful for businesses and other users of research to identify potential partners.

Key findings

  • Overall quality was 41 per cent world-leading (4*) and 43 per cent internationally excellent (3*) across all submitted research activity.
  • More than 80% of research judged as world-leading (4*) or internationally excellent (3*) in each UK nation and English region.
  • At least 15% of research was considered world-leading (4*) in three-quarters of the UK’s universities.

Recognising excellence

REF has recognised the wide distribution of excellent research – both across the UK, with over 80 per cent of research judged to be world-leading (4*) or internationally excellent (3*) in each UK nation and English region; and across a broad group of universities, of all sizes and types, with world-leading quality identified in 99 per cent of participating universities.

The 2021 framework enabled the diversity in research to be recognised and celebrated. The assessment found equally high-quality work produced by early career researchers, staff who took family-related leave, or who had other equality-related circumstances. Excellence was found in all forms of research, including excellent examples of interdisciplinary work.

Breadth and depth

REF 2021 provides a broader view than available before of research quality that spans the range of research activity being undertaken by each participating university. This arises from rule changes requiring the inclusion of all staff with a significant responsibility for research, which have seen a substantial increase in the number of staff returned in the assessment since the last REF in 2014 – up 46 per cent, from 52,000.

REF 2021 demonstrates the continued increase in the volume of high-quality research produced in the UK across the current REF period (2014 to 2020), with further changes in submission rules allowing greater capture of the highest-quality examples since 2014. These increases are confirmed through wider evidence beyond the REF process.

 Diverse benefits

REF 2021 highlights the diverse and rich ways that research is benefitting society. Assessing these impacts for the second time in an exercise of this kind, the expert panels observed the significant gains made from university investment in realising research impact – both in the richness and depth of wider partnerships woven throughout many submitted examples of impact, as well as in the increased detail and robustness in the evidencing of impacts claimed.

Exceptional achievement

Speaking on behalf of the four UK higher education funding bodies, Steven Hill, Chair of the REF Steering Group and Director of Research at Research England, said:

‘These results today reinforce the UK’s position as a world leader in research, corroborating the views of international commentators and highlighting our trajectory towards global research leadership across a broad set of disciplines. They represent an exceptional achievement for UK university research and demonstrate the huge return on public investment in research.

REF is at the forefront of approaches to capturing the impact from research, and demonstrates a substantial range of benefits. The real differences made to people’s lives, both across the UK and around the world, that are narrated through the impact case studies are in many cases humbling and, in our current times, a significant example of this is provided in our universities’ outstanding contribution to the Covid pandemic.

Universities and their staff have had to respond to the pandemic in multiple ways. Their commitment to working with the funding bodies to deliver REF 2021 has been considerable. The incredible contribution both of those making the submissions and of our expert panels, through these unprecedented times, has allowed us to deliver a rigorous and timely set of results.’

Notes

  1. The REF was undertaken by the four higher education funding bodies for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: Research England, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), and the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland (DfE). REF 2021 was managed on behalf of the funding bodies by a UK team based at Research England.
  2. The REF was last conducted in 2014. It replaced the previous Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).
  3. The results also provide benchmarks and public information about the research performance of universities. The results will be used by the four UK higher education funding bodies to allocate research funding to universities – around £2 billion per year from 2022-23.
  4. The results of the REF are available at www.ref.ac.uk from 00:01 on Thursday 12 May 2022.
  5. All data in this press release are UK-wide (aside from that reported for English regions).
  6. Any UK institution meeting the definition of an higher education institution (HEI), as set out in the REF ‘Guidance on submissions’ (REF 2019/01) was eligible to participate in the exercise.
  7. The REF is a discipline-based expert review process. 34 expert sub-panels, working under the guidance of four main panels, reviewed the submissions and made judgements on their quality. The panels comprised 900 academics, including 38 international members, and 220 users of research.
  8. 157 HEIs participated, making a total of 1,878 submissions to the 34 panels. Institutions’ submissions ranged from four staff submitted to a single panel, to over 3,000 staff submitted to 30 panels.
  9. The results are produced as ‘overall quality profiles’ which show the proportions of submitted activity judged to have met each quality level from 4* to unclassified. The quality levels are:
    • 4* World-leading
    • 3* Internationally excellent
    • 2* Recognised internationally
    • 1* Recognised nationally
    • U Unclassified
  1. The overall quality profile awarded to each submission is derived from three elements that were assessed:
    1. The quality of research outputs. This contributes 60 per cent to the overall quality profile. The panels reviewed 185,594 submitted research outputs.
    2. The social, economic and cultural impact of research. This contributes 25 per cent of the overall quality profile. The panels reviewed 6,781 submitted impact case studies.
    3. The research environment. This contributes 15 per cent of the overall quality profile. The panels reviewed submitted environment statements and statistical data on research income and doctoral degrees. A statement about the overall institution’s environment was provided, to inform and contextualise the panel’s assessment.
  2. An independent review of REF 2014, led by Lord Stern in 2016, introduced significant changes into the assessment framework for REF 2021, including the approach to submitting staff and outputs. These changes mean the exercise provides a different national picture of research quality, therefore, to its predecessor, limiting the extent to which meaningful comparisons can be drawn across the outcomes of the two exercises – for outputs in particular.
  3. The outcomes of the REF are provided as quality profiles. We publish the results for the submissions made by each HEI. Within each UOA, submitting institutions are listed in alphabetical order. The REF team and the UK funding bodies do not produce single-number figures or league tables from the REF results.
  4. Source for wider evidence about UK research performance in the period 2014 to 2020 is Clarivate Analytics. Forthcoming analysis will be available on the REF website.
  5. For further information, see www.ref.ac.uk.