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Research Excellence Framework

13 October 2009

Information for branches and members on the new Research Excellence Framework.

REF updates

REF21 results

May 2022: UCU said it is wrong for vice-chancellors to celebrate their REF21 results whilst almost three in four researchers are set to leave higher education. A recent UCU report revealed that three in four researchers want to leave the sector over low pay and working conditions.

Covid-19 REF postponement

March 2020: UCU said the postponement of the 2021 Research Excellence Framework is an opportunity to reform how research is reviewed and funding is allocated. UCU welcomed the news of the postponement, saying it was the only sensible move in the circumstances.

Sector conference calls for REF abolition

May 2019: UCU's annual higher education sector conference held at the end of May passed a number of motions on REF to inform UCU policy, including one calling on a campaign for its abolition. You can find these motions here.

Update on REF 2021

May 2019: The latest branch note provides a summary of feedback received on the selection of REF outputs from staff who have been made redundant and offers negotiating advice. Branches have been asked to push for the principle of researcher consent in relation to the use of outputs of former staff made redundant in REF 2021 and to seek information and examples from branches on REF 'game playing'.

New guidance for branches

March 2019: Branches have been updated on REF 2021, with a specific reference to changes in procedures on staff selection criteria on determining who has significant responsibility for research and on selection of outputs from staff who have been made redundant. Branches have been urged to push for involvement in developing local REF codes of practice and in determining staff selection procedures for REF 2021.

REF submission guidance will entrench casualisation

January 2019: UCU has condemned the decision of UK funding councils to allow higher education (HE) institutions to submit to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) the work of staff who have been made redundant. The submission guidance has removed reference to a proposed ban on the practice which UCU argues gives the green light to further embed a 'hire and fire' culture across the sector.

The second REF

February 2017: The UK higher education funding bodies are currently consulting on detailed arrangements for research assessment in the next REF. We have produced a short briefing on the key issues which you can read here [45kb].

We would like the union's work to fully reflect the views of the profession on this important issue, in particular on the questions of staff selection procedures and the portability of publications. If you would like to comment please contact Rob Copeland.

UCU welcomes Stern report

July 2016: Commenting the publication of the Independent Review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in July 2016, led by Lord Stern, UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'We welcome Lord Stern's findings that we need a diverse higher education sector and that the REF must support excellence wherever it is found across our institutions': UCU response to Stern Review of the Research Excellence Framework

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) - UCU Survey Report

October 2013: The majority of university staff are unhappy with the method used to assess the research done in UK higher education institutions, and would like to see it reformed, according to the result of a UCU survey which took place during the summer of 2013. See:

Survey finds widespread dissatisfaction amongst university staff with research assessment

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) - UCU Survey Report, Oct 13 [1mb]

Good practice in the codes of practice

December 2012: The REF Equality and Diversity Panel (EDAP) produces a report on good practice in the codes of practice on REF selection submitted by HEIs to the funding councils' REF team. It reports that nearly half of the codes sent in for review (from 159 HEIs in total) fell short of the requirements of the official guidance. Branches/LAs are advised to follow up with their own HEIs to request sight of the EDAP opinion and consultation on the implementation of requested changes. See UCUHE176 for further details: UCUHE176 (.rtf) | UCUHE176 (.pdf)

Updated REF code of practice guidance

July 2012: UCU produces updated guidance on the REF codes of practice and identifies best practice and key principles that branches/LAs should seek to include in codes of practice being developed by their HEIs prior to the 31 July deadline: UCUHE157 (.rtf) | UCUHE157 (.pdf)

UCU updates REF guidance

March 2012: Following a branch consultation meeting UCU has updated its guidance for branches on the Research Excellence Framework. Specifically, branches/LAs should now seek to influence the development of institutional codes of practice on REF submission, and seek to ensure that official guidance for REF submissions is followed. They should also seek no-detriment agreements to protect staff excluded from REF submissions.

Read the full guidance in: UCUHE141 (.rtf) | UCUHE141 (.pdf)

New REF guidelines

October 2011: The overwhelming majority of contributions to UCU's REF consultation response focused on the treatment of maternity and adoption leave. The final panel criteria is due to be published in January 2012: UCU response to the HEFCE REF consultation: 'Consultation on draft panel criteria and working methods', Oct 11 [109kb]

September 2011: UCU warns that proposed new guidelines for university research as part of the 2014 REF will penalise female academics. Under the draft proposals, female researchers who take maternity leave will still be expected to produce the same number of high-quality research publications as their colleagues. You can read the full consultation document here.

Read our press release here: New research guidelines will penalise female academics, union warns

Background: shifting positions

A brief overview of the political background.

Science and Technology Committee to examine 'impact' proposals

Following UCU lobbying, the Science and Technology Select Committee launched an inquiry into science funding and one aspect the committee will be particularly interested in is the proposals for 'impact'. The committee was interested in 'what evidence there is on the feasibility or effectiveness of estimating the economic impact of research, both from a historical perspective (for QR funding) and looking to the future (for research council grants)'. The report was published on 24 March 2010: The impact of spending cuts on science and scientific research (.pdf)

Political parties shifted positions on impact

Ahead of the 2010 general election, the Conservatives said they would 'delay the implementation of the Research Excellence Framework so that it could be reviewed - because of doubts about whether there is a robust and acceptable way of measuring the impact of all research'.

The Liberal Democrats said that while they believed in the value of considering impact, 'such considerations should not be used to decide whether projects are funded or not, even as tie-breakers; we recognise that the economic impact of science is inherently unpredictable, and making funding decisions on uncertain premises could ultimately be damaging. We are therefore opposed to the use of non-evidence based impact predictions when deciding resource allocations, whether that be in grant awards or through the Research Excellence Framework.' Read more here.

HEFCE acknowledge UCU pressure

26 March 2010: HEFCE announced the result of their consultation, acknowledging UCU's leading role in opposing their impact proposals. HEFCE said: 'A minority of responses, notably UCU, some of the academic associations, individual departments, individual researchers and others, opposed or objected to assessing the impact of research in the REF, even with a lower weighting. The UCU submitted a petition to withdraw the impact proposals, signed by 17,500 people, although the petition presented the proposals as seeking to predict the impact of research before it is carried out, rather than assessing 'historical' impacts as we had proposed. Their key concerns were that the REF would harm long-term, curiosity-driven research or disadvantage arts and humanities research, or that the challenges involved in assessing impact would be insurmountable.'

HEFCE announce delay in REF until after the election

1 April 2010: it was reported in the Times Higher that HEFCE would be delaying the implementation of the REF until after the election. David Sweeney, director of research at HEFCE announced that universities could expect a minimum of another year's delay to the current timetable, pushing the REF assessment to 2014 and REF-based funding to 2015. Mr Sweeney was clear that the immense public debate over the 'impact' proposals lay at the heart of this decision: 'It has got to be delayed by a year because we are having a more detailed discussion about impact than we expected.'

Nervous Hefce 'edging out' of REF citations, THE

Victory for research - plans to force economic impact into research postponed

9 July 2010: UCU welcomed the announcement from the new minister for universities and science, David Willetts, that there would be a one-year delay in order to review proposed changes to the REF because of concerns about the rigour of the criteria for assessing 'impact' and its acceptance by academics: UCU welcomes decision to postpone plans to force economic impact into research. UCU's Stand Up for Research campaign was instrumental in questioning the credibility of the 'impact' agenda.

However, a recent study from the higher education funding councils argues that the 'expert review of case studies is an appropriate means for assessing impact' and that the 'the case study approach should be developed further for use in the REF'. The pilot study - published in November 2010 - argued that a 'common broad approach for all disciplines based on case studies should be possible, with generic criteria and the same weighting for impact'. At the same time, it recognised that the 'assessment in the first full REF will still be developmental' and that as a result the 'weighting of impact in the REF should be considered carefully'. It suggested one option would be for impact to have a lower weighting than 25% for the 2014 REF.

UCU's policy team sought views on the pilot study report (.pdf), particularly from colleagues in the 29 participating HEIs. 

Research excellence framework - 'impact' back on the agenda

March 2011: UCU said the government was showing 'disgraceful neglect' towards universities and the academic community after it announced plans for the future of university research funding.

Universities minister, David Willetts, delayed the announcement after a campaign led by UCU to scrap a proposal that would see 25% of future research to be assessed on 'economic impacts'. But UCU said he had broken his promise to listen to academics as the government announced that the impact element will still be a key part of how research quality is assessed. Under the new framework the three elements being assessed will be weighted as such - output 65%, impact 20% and environment 15%: Government has broken promise to academics on research funding

UCU position

At our Higher Education Sector Conference in May 2011, we reiterated our policy of opposition to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). We believe that the REF will have a detrimental impact on the UK higher education system, including the demoralisation of staff, discriminatory practices and possibly the closure of departments. We are monitoring the REF and are adopting a vigorous and broadly-based campaign against damaging aspects of the proposals, particularly the 'impact' agenda.

After the proposal for including 'economic and social impact' of research in core funding was announced, there was a huge wave of protest from the academic community. UCU published an online petition against including impact which attracted 17,570 signatories in just over seven weeks. This included six Nobel laureates, eighty Fellows of the Royal Society and over three thousand professors. UCU and academics are concerned that the 'impact' elements will undermine support for basic research across all disciplines as well as disproportionately disadvantaging research in the arts and humanities.

UCU's response to HEFCE's consultation on draft panel criteria and working methods [109kb]

UCU response to the Research Excellence Framework - consultation on the assessment and funding of higher education research post-2008, Feb 08 [139kb]

See also the circular 'Funding and assessing research after 2008, Nov 06' for information on other UCU activity in this area.

Discoveries that would not survive the REF [84kb]

'There may be lessons too about the age-old point that time-and-again it is only when discoveries are made that possible applications become obvious': A story about an almost extinct species - left field science, by Sir Harold Kroto [40kb]

Read UCU's letter on the imbalance of the REF steering group [17kb]

The statement below opposing the REF proposals has now been submitted to HEFCE alongside UCU's response to the consultation. Thank you to all 17,570 people who signed.

UCU response to the REF consultation [435kb]
Signed statement on the REF proposals [2mb]

See also:


The latest proposal by the higher education funding councils is for 25% of the new Research Excellence Framework (REF) to be assessed according to 'economic and social impact'. As academics, researchers and higher education professionals we believe that it is counterproductive to make funding for the best research conditional on its perceived economic and social benefits.
The REF proposals are founded on a lack of understanding of how knowledge advances. It is often difficult to predict which research will create the greatest practical impact. History shows us that in many instances it is curiosity-driven research that has led to major scientific and cultural advances.

If implemented, these proposals risk undermining support for basic research across all disciplines and may well lead to an academic brain drain to countries such as the United States that continue to value fundamental research.
Universities must continue to be spaces in which the spirit of adventure thrives and where researchers enjoy academic freedom to push back the boundaries of knowledge in their disciplines.

We, therefore, call on the UK funding councils to withdraw the current REF proposals and to work with academics and researchers on creating a funding regime which supports and fosters basic research in our universities and colleges rather than discourages it.

Last updated: 9 April 2024