REF 2021: Scotland’s universities deliver research of “world leading” quality and impact

The results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), an exercise to assess the quality and impact of UK university research, are published today (Thursday, 12 May) and found Scotland’s universities are performing at a “world-leading” and “internationally excellent” standard. 84.86% of Scotland’s research has been judged to be 4* and 3* on the overall measure, the two highest categories of performance.

The assessment exercise takes place only once every five-to-seven years. Scotland has surpassed its performance relative to the last exercise, held in 2014[1]. This strength will fuel sustainable economic growth for Scotland, enhance public services, support industry and create jobs. However, research is fiercely competitive and the rest of the UK has made greater strides forward on some of the assessment criteria, including the measure of impact.

Responding to the results, university leaders call on policy makers to recognise our relative position as a strategic issue for the economy and take the action needed to maximise our competitive position as an asset for Scotland.

The REF 2021 results, published today, found the following research strengths:

  • Every one of Scotland’s 18 universities[2] undertakes research judged to be of “world-leading” or 4* quality on the overall profile.
  • 84.86% of the research submitted by Scotland’s universities has been judged to be world-leading (4*) or internationally excellent (3*) in its quality. The equivalent figure for all UK universities is 84.37%.
  • Scottish universities undertake world-leading and internationally excellent research in all 34 units of assessment – or subject areas – assessed by the REF. That includes subjects such as clinical medicine, mathematical sciences and art and design.

As well as an overall quality profile, the REF looks at performance in the areas of research output, impact and environment (which is the culture and conditions in which researchers do their work) to arrive at an overall rating of excellence. The impact measure contributes 25% to the overall score.

Whilst Scotland’s universities have improved their performance on the impact measure of assessment, compared to 2014, universities across the rest of the UK have done so at a greater rate. Looking at the performance on impact alone, 86.71% of research submitted by Scotland’s universities is rated as 4* and 3* relative to the UK average of 87.18%.

The REF is a periodic assessment of the quality of research in the UK higher education across all disciplines. This is carried out by 34 expert panels, each looking at a different subject area of research, assessing the submissions made by universities and their academics between 2013 and 2020.

Responding to the 2021 REF results, Alastair Sim, Director of Universities Scotland, said:

“The REF is a vital exercise in demonstrating the wide range of world-leading and internationally excellent research that takes place in universities across Scotland. This year’s REF shows that Scotland retains its reputation as a world-leading research nation. That status is hard-earned, fiercely competitive and credit must go to universities and their academics across the country.

“Research across Scotland is undertaken to address the challenges facing our society as well as problems faced globally: from breakthroughs in the treatment of cancer and dementia to solutions that address the climate emergency; our researchers are solving real world problems. 

“Having world-leading research in every institution in Scotland is a huge asset for this nation. Public investment in university research crowds in private investment, generating a bigger economic return with a multiplier of 8:1. Our research creates clusters of growth and innovation around new and emerging industries, catalysing external investment within Scotland and the wider world which ultimately creates jobs. It is imperative that Scotland maximises this opportunity and leverages the potential that exists with research for sustainable economic growth.”



[1] Methodological changes between the REF in 2014 and the 2021 REF mean that direct comparisons cannot be made between the data. The relative position between 2014 and 2021 refers to the percentage of research submitted that was rated 4* and 3* in both assessment exercises.

[2] Scotland has 19 universities and higher education institutions however the Open University in Scotland submits to the REF through the Open University.