The results of the Research Excellence Framework 2021 (REF) will be published on 12 May on the REF website (www.ref.ac.uk). REF is the UK-wide assessment of research in universities, and provides an expert evaluation of the quality of the research outputs, impact and environment at subject level in each university.
When the results are published, institutions will receive them divided by subject area, which in a REF context are referred to as ‘units of assessment’ (or UOAs). The results will show the percentage of the submission in each UOA that meets the standard for the 4* (world-leading) rating and for the other ratings of 3*, 2*, 1* and unclassified. The REF assesses the quality of the University’s submission in that subject area as a whole and does not assess individuals; the assessed quality of any particular research output or individual impact case study is not made available.
Although the press will formulate the results into national rankings (using various methods of their own), the REF is not a ranking exercise. The reason we all put so much effort into the REF is because the results are used to inform the quality-related research (QR) funding that universities receive from the government, each year for the next seven or so years. For context, the QR allocation based on our REF 2014 results comprised ~10% of the University’s external research income in 2020/21. The financial implications of our REF 2021 performance will not be known for several months, but I believe it is likely that – as in the past – our allocation will be driven mainly by the fraction of our submission that is assessed to be of the (top) 4* quality, combined with the size of our submission. Accordingly, our communications of the REF 2021 results will mostly focus on these two simple metrics. More details on REF 2021 can be found on the Research Services website.
After the REF 2021 results are published, working with communications colleagues from around the University, the Public Affairs Directorate will share some of our REF impact case studies, as a way of illustrating the benefits that our research has delivered beyond academia, regionally, nationally, and around the world. As a taster, you can find examples of the University’s impact on www.ox.ac.uk/research.
Looking to the future, there are two things to highlight. First, the REF Project Board has kept a ‘lessons learned’ log of REF 2021, so we can apply our experience of the REF 2021 submission (including lessons for preparing a submission in a pandemic) to ensure that our approach to the next REF is as efficient, well-resourced, and considerate to colleagues as we can make it. Second, noting that we are already in the next assessment period, we are involved in recommending what the next REF should look like through UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Future Research Assessment Programme consultation. Mention of the next REF prompts me to remind you of the importance of ensuring that your research outputs are eligible for submission, which you can do by making them open access: for most of you this means acting on acceptance, but if you are funded by UKRI then you should follow the OA policy that came into effect on 1 April.
The publication of the REF 2021 results will mark the culmination of the work done by many staff across the University over many years, especially in the last two years or so. Thank you to everyone involved in the submission – both those who, in a variety of ways, led and supported our research and impact activities, and the many colleagues who coordinated the submission itself. I am aware that the workload of REF 2021 fell heavily on some of you, and, regardless of our results, I am grateful to you for your effort, advice and support.