UK research assessment finds Scotland’s higher education sector is ‘world-class’ and delivering outstanding impact

Today (Thursday 18 December) sees the publication of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014 results for all 154 higher education institutions across the UK.

Key findings for Scotland:

  • Every one of Scotland’s 18* higher education institutions undertakes research judged to be of “world-leading” quality.
  • The higher education sector in Scotland submitted research to all 36 units of assessment (broad subject groupings) and was judged to undertake research of “world leading” quality in all 36 units of assessment.
  • Overall, 77 per cent of Scottish research submitted to the REF2014 was judged to be “world-leading” or internationally excellent (4* and 3* combined) on the overall profile. This puts Scotland just ahead of the UK average of 76.1 per cent.
  • Scotland’s performance in REF 2014 exceeds that achieved in the last UK-wide research assessment exercise conducted in 2008. Scotland’s overall profile figure for 4* and 3* research in 2008 was 52 per cent.
  • Scotland performs more highly than the UK average when assessed on the impact of its research; a new measures for REF 2014. 85.8 per cent of Scottish research was judged to be at 4* and 3* – levels which means the research has had “outstanding” or “very considerable” impact (compared to the UK average of 83.9 per cent).
  • Demonstrating its strengths across all disciplines, the Scottish sector has above the UK average proportion of ‘world-leading’ research in fields such as: chemistry, biological sciences, physics, history, art and design, agriculture, veterinary and food science music, drama, dance and the performing arts.
  • Scotland was found to have the highest rating of 4* and 3* combined in the UK for the research environment measure. The assessment of environment includes the wider research team including researchers and post-doctoral students as well as facilities and infrastructure.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is an assessment of the quality and impact of the research that UK universities undertake. The REF itself is a huge undertaking and is carried out roughly every six-to-seven years. The last assessment was published in December 2008.

The REF results provide important reputational yardsticks and benchmarking information about the research performance of every one of the UK’s higher education institutions. It also provides accountability for public investment in research and demonstrates the benefits of that investment.

Commenting on the results Professor Pete Downes, Convener of Universities Scotland and Principal of the University of Dundee, said:

“Scotland’s higher education institutions have performed outstandingly well in the Research Excellence Framework. Every one of Scotland’s higher education institutions undertakes research of world-leading quality with more than three-quarters of all of the research submitted by Scottish institutions judged to be world-leading and internationally excellent.

“I am also delighted to see such a strong performance across the full breadth of subjects with Scotland demonstrating world-leading research in every unit of assessment. This is testament to Scotland’s highly diverse higher education sector.

“The new measure of the impact of university research will be of particular interest to politicians and the public as this has assessed what wider economic, social or cultural contribution university research has. I couldn’t be any prouder that Scotland universities have been shown to excel in the impact of their research with over 85 per cent being found to have had either outstanding or very considerable impact, a performance which is significantly better than the average across the UK.”

The overall profile produced through the REF is based on an assessment of three different factors which all contribute a different weighting to the final result:

  • an assessment of the quality of research outputs is the largest component of the score, accounting for 65 per cent
  • the new impact measure counts for 20 per cent of the score
  • an assessment of the environment in which research is carried out accounting for the remaining 15 per cent (see notes).


The impact measure is new to REF2014. It makes an assessment of the impact it has outside of the university on the economy, society, culture, on health or public policy or the environment.

Over 45 per cent of Scotland’s research submitted to the REF 2014 was found to be 4*, of “outstanding impact”, with a total of 85.8 per cent judged to be “outstanding” or “very considerable” impact (4* + 3*). This performance exceeds the UK average of 83.9 per cent.

A total of 6,350 research active staff in Scotland were submitted to the REF2014 with a total of 22,891 outputs between them. Both figures represent a 12 per cent share of all staff and all outputs made across the UK.



  • Submissions to the REF2014 are graded on a five point scale, ascending from “U” for unclassified to 4*. The definitions for each point on the scale are as follows:
    4* – Quality that is world-leading
    3* – Quality that is internationally excellent
    2* – Quality that is recognised internationally
    1* – Quality that is recognised nationally
    U – Quality below the standard of nationally recognised or work that is not eligible for the REF
  • Only work judged to be 3* and 4*, that is internationally excellent and world-leading, is currently funded by the Scottish Funding Council.
  • All of the case studies submitted by higher education institutions to be assessed for impact will be published in January 2015. REF expects there to be a fully searchable database of impact case studies available from the spring of 2015.
  • Scotland has 19 higher education institutions including the Open University in Scotland. The Open University in Scotland receives its research funding through HEFCE and is therefore not listed separately in the REF results for Scottish HEIs.
  • Universities Scotland would like to thank Michael Rayner, Dean of Research at the University of the Highlands and Islands and Chair of the REF Managers Group Scotland for his help in preparing for REF 2014.