Research Excellence Framework

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The Research Excellence Framework is the successor to the Research Assessment Exercise, a method of assessing the research of British higher education institutions. It took place in 2014 to assess research carried out during the period 2008–2013 inclusive. The results were published on 18 December 2014.[1][2]


In June 2007 the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) issued a circular letter announcing that a new framework for assessing research quality in UK universities would replace the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), following the 2008 RAE.[3] The following quote from the letter indicates some of the original motivation:

Our key aims for the new framework will be:

  • to produce robust UK-wide indicators of research excellence for all disciplines which can be used to benchmark quality against international standards and to drive the Council's funding for research
  • to provide a basis for distributing funding primarily by reference to research excellence, and to fund excellent research in all its forms wherever it is found
  • to reduce significantly the administrative burden on institutions in comparison to the RAE
  • to avoid creating any undesirable behavioural incentives
  • to promote equality and diversity
  • to provide a stable framework for our continuing support of a world-leading research base within HE.

The letter also set out a timetable for the development of the REF. HEFCE undertook a consultation exercise during September–December 2009, soliciting responses from stakeholders on the proposals.[4] These include for example the response from Universities UK,[5] and the response from the University and College Union.[6]

In July 2010 (following the May 2010 general election), the Universities and Science minister David Willetts announced that the REF will be delayed by a year in order to assess the efficacy of the impact measure.[7]

Grading criteria[edit]

Submissions are assessed according to the following criteria:[8]

  • Four star: Quality that is world-leading in originality, significance and rigour.
  • Three star: Quality that is internationally excellent in originality, significance and rigour but which falls short of the highest standards of excellence.
  • Two star: Quality that is recognised internationally in originality, significance and rigour.
  • One star: Quality that is recognised nationally in originality, significance and rigour.
  • Unclassified Quality: that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment.

Performance rankings[edit]

Two publishers, The Guardian[9] and Times Higher Education,[10] produce overall rankings of multidisciplinary universities based on power and quality(GPA).

Power rankings aim to show universities with a breadth of quality, while Quality rankings aim to show the depth of quality.

The Guardian Power rankings only consider rankings graded at Four and Three star. While Times Higher Education Power rankings consider rankings across all gradings.

An additional Quality ranking is the one ranking institutions according to the proportion of their research graded as "Four star". That is, submitted researches graded as "Quality that is world-leading in originality, significance and rigour".[11]

Ranking THE Research Power Top 10 The Guardian Research Power Top 10 THE Quality (GPA) Top 10 Top 10 for highest % with 'World Leading' Research
1 University College London University of Oxford Imperial College London London School of Economics
2 University of Oxford University College London London School of Economics University of Oxford
3 University of Cambridge University of Cambridge University of Oxford University of Cambridge
4 University of Edinburgh University of Edinburgh University of Cambridge Imperial College London
5 University of Manchester University of Manchester Cardiff University University College London
6 King's College London Imperial College London King's College London Cardiff University
7 University of Nottingham King's College London University College London King's College London
8 Imperial College London University of Nottingham University of Warwick University of Edinburgh
9 University of Bristol University of Bristol University of Edinburgh University of Warwick
10 University of Leeds University of Leeds University of Bristol University of Bristol

Controversies and criticism[edit]

Criticism has focused on the element of the REF that addresses the "impact" of research. The articles below raise two objections. The main one is that "impact" has been defined to mean impact outside the academy. If researchers were required to pursue this form of impact, it would undermine academic freedom. The other is that impact—as currently construed—is hard to measure in any way that would be regarded as fair and impartial.[12][13][14]

The Higher Education Funding Council for England argue that their measure of "impact" is a broad one which will encompass impact upon the "economy, society, public policy, culture and the quality of life".[12]

Another area of criticism, which the REF inherited from the structure of the RAE, is that for most full-time staff members submission normally consists of four published 'research output items'. There is no recognition of the difference between a book and an article in terms of research value. Therefore, the REF system discourages long term projects that strive for excellence. This problem is particularly evident in the humanities, where most of the ground-breaking research is traditionally not published in articles. Therefore, many researchers are pushed towards a relatively mediocre activity, which will allow them to produce one or two books during the assessment period, but not the kind of monograph that normally would need four or five years of research and writing.

Moreover, the system of the four published items discourages long-term projects with relatively high research risk in the sciences as well, since researchers are reluctant to engage in projects or experiments that may not be successful and may not lead to a publication. Since most of the ground-breaking research in the sciences takes place with precisely such risky and imaginative projects, the type of research activity that is encouraged by the REF structure is quite conservative. Also, in terms of the impact of the examined research, in the history of the sciences and the humanities it is not unusual to take some time until the full impact of a discovery is made. The present system has a vista of only four or five years.

The Times Higher Education also revealed that some universities appeared to be "gaming" the REF system. This included "REF Poaching", in which staff with established research records were headhunted from their universities immediately before the REF, giving the poaching institution full credit for their publications without having taken the risk of supporting the researcher. It also included employing large numbers of staff on 0.2 FTE contracts, the lowest level of employment that qualifies them for REF submission.[15]

In addition to such concerns about what really can be measured by four research output items, and how impact may be measured, the whole system is often criticized as unnecessarily complex and expensive, whereas quality evaluation in the digital age could be much simpler and effective.[16]

The system, with its associated financial implications, has also been criticised for diverting resources from teaching. As such, increases in student fees may often not have resulted in more staff time being spent on teaching.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Results & submissions : REF 2014". Retrieved 22 December 2014. 
  2. ^ Atkinson, Peter M. (11 December 2014). "Assess the real cost of research assessment". World View. Nature (paper). 516 (7530): 145. doi:10.1038/516145a. 
  3. ^ Eastwood, David (6 March 2007). "Future framework for research assessment and funding". HEFCE. circular letter number 06/2007. Archived from the original on 3 March 2010. 
  4. ^ "Research Excellence Framework: Second consultation on the assessment and funding of research". HEFCE. September 2009. 2009/38. Retrieved 10 January 2015. 
  5. ^ "Universities UK response to HEFCE consultation on the Research Excellence Framework (REF)". Universities UK. 13 December 2009. Archived from the original (.doc) on 16 July 2011. 
  6. ^ "Response to the Research Excellence Framework: Second consultation on the assessment and funding of research" (PDF). University and College Union. December 2009. 
  7. ^ Baker, Simon (8 July 2010). "REF postponed while Willetts waits for impact 'consensus'". Times High. Educ. 
  8. ^ "Assessment framework and guidance on submission" (PDF). Research Excellence Framework. July 2011. p. 43. REF 02.2011. 
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b Shepherd, Jessica (13 October 2009). "Humanities research threatened by demands for 'economic impact'". Education. The Guardian. London. 
  13. ^ Oswald, Andrew (26 November 2009). "REF should stay out of the game". The Independent. London. 
  14. ^ Fernández-Armesto, Felipe (3 December 2009). "Poisonous Impact". Times Higher Education. 
  15. ^ Jump, Paul (26 September 2013). "Twenty per cent contracts rise in run-up to REF". Times Higher Education. 
  16. ^ Dunleavy, Patrick (10 June 2011). "The Research Excellence Framework is lumbering and expensive. For a fraction of the cost, a digital census of academic research would create unrivalled and genuine information about UK universities' research performance". London School of Economics. 

External links[edit]