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The Research Excellence Framework (REF)

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a national assessment of the research taking place across UK universities. REF takes place cyclically, typically every six years.

The framework is used by the four UK higher education funding bodies (Research England, the Scottish Funding Council, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, and the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland) to assess the quality of research and to inform the distribution of research funding -  worth currently around £2 billion per year, to UK universities.

The main purpose of REF is to:

  • Act as an assessment for UK research funding allocations
  • Provide accountability for public funding of research and demonstrate the benefits
  • Provide significant benchmarking information on research reputation for universities
The last assessment exercise was REF 2014, which introduced an assessment of impact for the first time - REF 2014 key facts provides an overview of this assessment process.
The University's submissions by discipline (or Unit of Assessment) and results for REF 2014 are available on the REF2014 website. A searchable online database of REF 2014 Impact Case Studies, is also available for users to search assessed impact by field of research, impact type and location of activity.

How is the REF assessment carried out?

The REF looks at three areas of assessment, which together reflect the key characteristics of research excellence:
  1. Quality of research outputs (accounting for 60%  of the assessment)
  2. Impact of research – its effect on, change, or benefit to the economy, society, policy, culture and quality of life (accounting for 25% of the assessment)
  3. Research environment – an institution’s research strategy, research facilities, opportunities for collaboration and environment, including research income and research degrees awarded (accounting for 15% of the assessment)
Each University is required to make an institutional submission to REF which is broken down into 34 disciplinary units, known as Units of Assessment (UoAs). These submissions are assessed by an expert panel of academics and public, private and third-sector experts in each UoA. There are four main panels to reflect the following subject areas:
  • Main Panel A: Medicine, health and life sciences
  • Main Panel B: Physical sciences, engineering and mathematics
  • Main panel C: Social sciences
  • Main Panel D: Arts and humanities
These panels are appointed by the four UK founding bodies, and oversee the assessment, ensuring that the assessment criteria and standards are consistently applied. These panels are supported by the Equality and Diversity Advisory Panel (EDAP) and the Interdisciplinary Research Advisory Panel (IDAP).
All universities are also required to submit a code of practice detailing the policies and processes which govern how they will develop their REF submission. The University of Exeter REF 2021 ‌Code of Practice was submitted in June 2019 to Research England for approval by the REF Equality and Diversity Advisory Panel.
Submissions for the next REF are due in November 2020, with results due to be published in December 2021.
Find out more about Exeter REF 2021.