Briefings & Evidence

Response to Lord Stern’s review of the Research Excellence Framework

We have responded to Lord Stern’s review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions. The review poses nine questions in relation to aspects of the REF process including on the allocation of quality-related research funding (QR in England and the Research Excellence Grant, REG, in Scotland).

REF is valued by our members as a recognised quality endorsement, for providing meaningful benchmarking and enabling institutions to drive improvements. It is also important as a means of resource allocation but it is not its only purpose.

Key points from our response include:

  • Our strong recommendation is to minimise changes to the next REF exercise and to provide institutions with guidance as soon as practicable in order to minimise the burden of adapting to changes part way through the REF period.
  • Peer review is critical to assessing the quality of research, and currently no metrics can replace this. However, appropriate metrics could have a useful role in supporting peer review.
  • Future assessments must have the confidence of the wider research community and this will necessitate a peer review system. This is important for the international reputation of UK research, recruitment of the best academics and the inward investment power of our world-class research base.
  • Including impact within the REF assessment has helped to raise the profile and importance of impact in universities. We argue that the impact definition for the next REF should be similar to REF2014 to enable HEIs to further embed culture change, which is a long-term process.
  • Focusing on the on the impact case studies, we believe there may be scope for some standard reporting approaches, but this must not impact on the capacity to express the breadth of impact; case studies should be eligible for resubmission where new impacts can be demonstrated, but without detriment to the possibility of achieving the highest score; and the date for underpinning research should remain at 1993 to reflect evidence about time lag between research and impact.
  • We are supportive of the current Unit of Assessment (UoA) structure and have emphasised the importance of the current level of granularity to foster unit goals, identify centres of excellence, and areas for development. We believe a higher level of aggregation would risk losing sight of emerging pockets of excellence and would minimise the ability of the reviewers to take into account specific unit or discipline strengths.
  • We believe that the REF already drives a number of priorities, including interdisciplinary research, other collaborations and open access publication; therefore we recommend caution in introducing further drivers into this system.
  • We would be open to discussing a longer-term approach for future iterations of the REF; there is scope to discuss a system of alternating full and lighter touch reviews, based on metrics and/or an output sampling approach (both with peer review input). The development of reliable and validated metrics would require resource commitment.
  • We have raised our significant concerns about the future of the QR in England in the proposed new Research UK body, and the associated abolition of HEFCE. It is important that the expertise established within HEFCE is retained, that the independence of the assessment is maintained for future assessments, and that the four UK higher education funding bodies (or equivalents) should continue to work together to ensure the UK-wide assessment works for all UK research.

Read Universities Scotland’s full response to the 24 March deadline