REF 2021: UK university research ‘world-leading’

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The latest Research Excellence Framework (REF), detailing the results of a UK-wide assessment of university research, has been published. 

Amongst its findings, the assessment identified a substantial proportion of ‘world-leading’ and ‘internationally excellent’ research across all regions and subject areas. In addition, and for the first time, the assessment included the submission of all staff with ‘significant responsibility’ for research. The new framework was designed to enable the recognition and celebration of diversity in research.

Last conducted in 2014, this year’s REF had a total of 157 UK university participants, submitting more than 76,000 academic staff. Submissions included research outputs, examples of the wider benefits of research and evidence about the research environment. 

Material was assessed by a series of expert panels including UK and international researchers, external users of research and experts in interdisciplinary research. 

Overall, these panels deemed 41 per cent of submitted work to be ‘world-leading,’ with a further 43 per cent cited as ‘internationally excellent’. More than 80 per cent of research was also judged as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’ in each UK nation and English region and at least 15 per cent of research was considered to be ‘world-leading’ in three-quarters of the UK’s universities.

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 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. 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 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.’