Introduction to REF 2021

In the UK, exercises to measure research excellence have been carried out every five to seven years since 1986, starting with the Research Assessment Exercises (RAE) and evolving into the current Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014.

The aim of these exercises is to:

  • Identify excellent research in all subjects in universities in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland
  • Provide accountability for public funds spent on university research
  • Inform the future allocation of public funds for research, by rewarding research excellence wherever it is found

For the purposes of the REF, research is defined as ‘a process of investigation leading to new insights, effectively shared’.

Research can take many different forms but is commonly divided into three types: fundamental research, applied research, and experimental development. Fundamental research aims to develop new understandings and insights, without a specific end-use in mind, whereas applied research focuses on trying to find novel solutions to specific problems. Distinct from either of these, experimental development draws on existing knowledge to create new and improved products, devices, and services.

However, not all research is measured by these exercises. Instead, they assess a sample of the best research from staff submitted for assessment. Specifically, REF2021 required us to submit all staff with significant responsibility for research, as defined by our institutional code of practice, agreed with our representative bodies and approved by the REF Equality and Diversity Advisor Panel (EDAP). In total, we submitted 310 staff for assessment in REF2021. Our research journey explains more about our submission to REF2021 and details the wider body of our research activity from which our REF2021 submission was selected.  

Because research may differ markedly between academic disciplines, research quality assessment is made by selected academic peers and research-users within discrete subject groupings or Units of Assessment (UoAs). This ensures that relevant discipline norms are respected by measuring excellence against the relevant subject expectations and international discipline quality benchmarks. For REF2021 there were 34 units of assessment covering all academic disciplines. The REF2021 UoAs differ from those of REF2014 and the previous RAEs, making direct comparisons across exercises difficult in some disciplines. Read more about our Units of Assessment.