Publication of REF 2021 Results

The results of the second Research Excellence Framework have been published.

The results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 have been published, providing a comprehensive account of the quality of research conducted in over 150 higher education institutions (HEIs) throughout the UK.

The REF first took place in 2014, replacing the previous Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). It provides a thorough assessment of the quality of universities’ research in all disciplines, providing accountability for public investment in research as well as benchmarks and public information about the research performance of universities. The results will also be used by the four UK higher education funding bodies to allocate research funding to universities – around £2 billion per year from 2022-23.

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). Submissions were reviewed by 34 expert sub-panels covering all research disciplines, which made judgements on their quality. For each submission, three distinct elements are assessed: the quality of outputs (eg publications, performances, and exhibitions), their impact beyond academia, and the environment that supports research. 

In total, 157 UK universities participated, submitting over 76,000 academic staff, a 46% increase on 2014’s figure of 52,000 staff. This increase was the result of a rule change that saw the inclusion of all staff with significant responsibility for research, enabling the results to better reflect the quality of research conducted across the breadth of university activity.

Overall, the panels judged 41% of the submitted work to be ‘world-leading’ (4*) and a further 43% to be ‘internationally excellent’ (3*). More than 80% of research was judged as world-leading (4*) or internationally excellent (3*) in each UK nation and English region, and at least 15% of research was considered world-leading (4*) in three-quarters of the UK’s universities, with world-leading quality identified in 99% of participating universities.

The REF also acknowledged the vital contribution UK HEIs made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of which were outlined in impact case studies submissions to REF 2021. Universities’ responsiveness and flexibility in adapting to changing requirements were also credited in enabling the REF to take place and provide reliable results.

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 results can be accessed in full at the REF website.