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REF2021: What have we learned?

  • 12 May 2022
  • By Dinah Birch
  • Following the announcement of the results of REF2021 today, join us in conversation with David Sweeney, Executive Chair of Research England, at 3pm. Register for the webinar here.

This blog was written by Professor Dinah Birch, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Cultural Engagement and Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool, and chair of REF21 Main Panel D (Arts and humanities).

More than seven years have passed since the results of REF2014 were published. And now, at last, we have a new set of data to consider, as the COVID-delayed results of REF2021 finally emerge into the light of day. What have we learned from this comprehensive scrutiny of the nation’s research quality, and its public benefit?

Every submitting institution and department will pore over the detail of these results, reflecting on the performance of their own researchers. Broader disciplinary patterns will also be closely examined, and the views of the four Main Panels and the 34 Sub-Panels on the state of research in their areas, to be found in the overview reports, will provide much food for thought.

But it is also worth pausing to consider what these results reveal on a national level, and in this respect, there is a great deal to celebrate. REF2021 reveals a high level of achievement across the sector, with impressive achievements in terms of the quality of outputs, impact and research environments to be seen across a wide range of institutions and departments in the UK’s very diverse research sector. Despite the challenges faced by smaller or specialist units, and new entrants to the sector, big did not turn out to mean best in every instance. Achievement of the highest quality were found in submissions of every size, from every type of institution, and from every region.

It’s important to recognise that comparisons with the results of REF2014, which commentators from all quarters will naturally be tempted to make, will be of limited use. After Lord Stern’s review of 2016, radical changes were introduced to the assessment framework, and these have, unsurprisingly, affected the results profiles. All staff with a significant responsibility for research were required to be submitted to the framework, with the requirement that the number of submitted outputs should be the total FTE of submitted staff multiplied by 2.5. The decoupling of staff and outputs represents another major change, leading to greater flexibility in the choice of outputs to be submitted, between a minimum of one and maximum of five for each individual member of staff.

The consequences of these changes have varied across submitting units and areas of research, but in general they have tended to lead to higher scores across the Framework. This reflects the impressive quality of the work that has been submitted for assessment. Sub-panel members, with extensive experience of previous research assessment processes (including REF2014), have participated in extensive calibration exercises (across all areas of the Framework) to ensure that quality boundaries have been rigorously and consistently applied. International panel members have provided reassurance that the standards applied are in alignment with those that would be expected throughout the global research base.

Across all areas of research, the continuing development of strong interdisciplinary research was evident. Despite some early concerns from the sector as to whether such research would be equitably assessed, sub-panel members were able to demonstrate the capability, enhanced by the resources of other sub-panels where appropriate, to approach the assessment of interdisciplinary work with confident expertise. 

An emphasis on partnered working, supported by increased investment from institutions, is clearly leading to growing levels of public benefit emerging from the nation’s research. The maturity and imaginative ambition of the submitted Impact Case Studies was one of the most impressive aspects of REF2021. These Case Studies will be made publicly available in mid-June 2022, in an accessible and searchable database that, in years to come, will constitute a rich resource for those seeking to examine the positive impact of research in the UK.

Environment statements submitted for assessment demonstrated the extraordinary diversity of the ways in which research of many different kinds is supported across the sector. Increased levels of awareness of challenges presented by equality, diversity and inclusion were evident in many of these statements. Though further work clearly remains to be done in these areas, encouraging progress was clear.

Finally, the extent of the care and thought involved in delivering an effective and reliable Research Excellence Framework should be acknowledged and celebrated. Many individuals have had a part to play – the academic and professional staff in higher education institutions who have been involved in preparing submissions, the panel members (including research users and international members) who have contributed to setting the Framework’s criteria, and then in the assessment of submissions, the tireless panel advisers and secretaries who have supported every aspect of the Framework, and the dedicated UKRI REF team. COVID added extra complications and pressures to the process, much of which necessarily took place online. This patient work stands as a testament to a widely shared commitment to the value of the Framework, and of the evidence it provides of the excellence of research undertaken in the UK, and of the public benefit that it supports.

This was the seventh in a series of blogs reflecting on the REF. The full list of blogs in the series can be found here.

Register for our webinar with David Sweeney, Executive Chair of Research England, here.

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