The Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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In a series of blogs, the LPIP Hub explains what the three common university frameworks are, what the benefits are of these, and how they can be of interest to people outside academia.  Focussing on how collaboration and partnerships can help universities and conversely how performing well in these frameworks can be of benefit to our external partners.

Read the second blog in the series for information on the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

What is “the REF”?

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a crucial evaluation mechanism designed specifically for higher education institutions in the UK, aimed at assessing the quality of research conducted within universities. This framework is pivotal in determining how government research funding is allocated, underscoring its significant impact on the strategic priorities and behaviours of universities. The REF outcomes are used to inform the allocation of around £2 billion per year of public funding for university research.  For those not deeply entrenched in the academic sector, grasping the fundamentals of the REF and its influence on university research culture and funding mechanisms can be confusing.

What are the benefits of the REF?

Through the REF, stakeholders, including potential research partners, policymakers, and the wider community, can:

  1. Obtain a detailed understanding of the research quality and output of UK universities, providing a comprehensive view of where leading expertise and pioneering research activities are situated.
  2. Use the REF results to identify universities with strong research capabilities in specific fields or disciplines, facilitating targeted collaborations and partnerships.
  3. Understand the societal and economic impact of university research, highlighting how academic discoveries and innovations contribute to these broader societal advancements.
  4. Encourage strategic alignments between research institutions and external partners, aiming to leverage research excellence for mutual benefit.

Why is the REF of interest for people outside of academia, and how can collaboration and partnerships help?

The importance of the REF extends beyond the academic sphere, offering substantial benefits to various stakeholders. By engaging with high-performing universities, as identified by the REF, external partners can access cutting-edge research and innovations, fostering collaborations that address critical challenges and contribute to economic development and societal well-being. For universities, excelling in the REF both enhances their reputation and increases their potential to attract funding, top-tier researchers, and strategic partnerships, further amplifying their impact on society and the economy.

To achieve high scores in the REF, universities must foster a vibrant research culture that encourages excellence, innovation, and impact. This includes supporting researchers in producing high-quality outputs, engaging with communities and industries to ensure research has tangible impacts beyond academia, and creating an environment that nurtures research development and collaboration.

In summary, the REF is an indispensable tool for higher education institutions and their potential collaborators. It offers a robust assessment of research quality and impact, guiding funding decisions, and fostering a competitive yet collaborative research environment. By engaging with the REF, stakeholders can identify and pursue collaborations with leading research institutions, leveraging academic expertise to drive forward innovations and solutions for the challenges facing society today. Although this is a backwards-looking snapshot and does not necessarily reflect the university’s strategy or future plans, you can further explore how universities perform in the REF and identify potential collaboration opportunities by visiting the REF website.

This blog was written by Elizabeth Goodyear, Programme Manager at City-REDI / WMREDI, University of Birmingham.


The views expressed in this post are those of the author and not necessarily those of City-REDI, WMREDI or the University of Birmingham.

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