A Big Week in the Measurement of Expertise: How the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) Results Will Impact Universities

A Big Week in the Measurement of Expertise: How the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) Results Will Impact Universities

May 9, 20224 min read

How should we measure faculty expertise? This week the UK provides its answer to this question via its highly significant and formal (government-directed) assessment of academic research - which grades academic teams on a scale of 1* to 4* for their ability to deliver, share and create impact globally outstanding research.

This process is known as the REF (the Research Excellence Framework) - and the results will be publicly released this Thursday (12th May) with universities themselves finding out how they’ve performed in advance today (Monday 9th May). The process was last carried out 8 years ago and has been delayed by a year due to the pandemic.

Why is the Research Excellence Framework (REF) Significant?

The Research Excellence Framework steers the level of UK public funds - allocated via research councils - that will be invested in research for each academic department (or so-called “Unit of Assessment”) for the next few years. It is also a way of comparing performance against other universities that are offering similar research expertise, and of strengthening (or weakening) global research reputations.

During the next three days, UK universities will be digging into the detail of their REF gradings and the accompanying feedback. There will be some very nervous university leaders and research heads delving into why this peer-assessed review of their research has not gone as well as they expected and why their percentages in each of the four grade areas have dropped - or even been given the “unclassified” career-damaging stamp.

How are the REF Scores for Universities Determined?

The measurement process is based on three aspects:

  1. Quality of outputs (such as: publications, performances, and exhibitions),
  2. Impact beyond academia
  3. The environment that supports research

The preparation, participation, and assessment process takes a massive amount of time, attention and energy. Last time (2014) there were 1,911 submissions to review. Research teams, designated REF leaders and senior staff will have spent long hours across many months preparing their submissions and making sure they are presenting hard evidence and the best case possible to meet the above criteria at the highest possible level. There are 34 subject areas that are covered in the latest REF - and three tiers of expert panels (some with about 20 or more senior academics, international subject leaders, and research users) will have reviewed each submission and compared notes to come to decisions.

How do these Key Categories within the REF Contribute to the Rating for a University?

The Research Excellence Framework is actually an intensive and highly important approach to expert assessment. These are the key factors and their definitions (with the assigned weighting of each of the criteria in steering final grades):

  1. Outputs (60%): the quality of submitted research outputs in terms of their ‘originality, significance and rigour’, with reference to international research quality standards. This element will carry a weighting of 60 per cent in the overall outcome awarded to each submission.
  2. Impact (25%): the ‘reach and significance’ of impacts on the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life that were underpinned by excellent research conducted in the submitted unit. This element carries a weighting of 25 per cent.
  3. Environment (15%): the research environment in terms of its ‘vitality and sustainability’, including the approach to enabling impact from its research, and its contribution to the vitality and sustainability of the wider discipline or research base. This element accounts for 15 per cent.

Taking a Closer Look at the Categories - Are We Focusing Enough on Research Impact?

In 2014 a formal review was carried out in order to improve and evolve the REF process which made a number of recommendations. Most notably the weighting for “impact” was increased by five percent, with “outputs” being reduced by the same percentage. This is certainly a recognition that the external contribution difference that research makes is more important - but is it enough? Should there be greater emphasis on the return on investment from a beneficiaries and user experience perspective?

Many argue that academic research should retain a strong element of ‘”blue sky” experimentation - where outright evidence of impact may take several years (even decades) and so can’t demonstrate such immediate value.

A particularly notable benefit of the timing of the COVID-19 pandemic and the effect of this in REF deadlines has allowed the extended assessment period for ‘proof of impact’ from 1 August 2013 to 31 December 2020. This is an extension from the previous end date of 31 July 2020. The extension has been put in place to enable case studies affected by, or focusing on the response to, COVID-19 to be assessed in REF 2021.

Going back to the original question: how should we measure faculty expertise? It will be interesting to monitor the views and responses of university leaders and faculty members at the end of this week as to whether they feel that - standing back from it all - this UK-centric method of measurement is the best that can be done, a neat compromise or isn’t really what we really need.

For more information on the Research Excellence Framework visit www.ref.ac.uk/

Justin Shaw

Justin is UK and Ireland Development Director for ExpertFile and Chief Higher Education Consultant at Communications Management. An authority on University strategy and communications, he has worked in and with leadership teams at UK universities for over 30 years. In his role he has advised universities on how to promote their expertise and on communications strategies related to the REF.

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  • Justin Shaw
    Justin Shaw Chief Higher Education Consultant (Communications Management) and UK Development Director

    Specialist in higher education, communications, reputation and marketing of academic experts

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