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The REF provides a robust and thorough assessment of the quality of universities’ research in all disciplines. The research of 52,061 academic staff from 154 UK universities was peer-reviewed by a series of panels comprising UK and international experts, and external users of research. The panels judged 30 per cent of the submitted work to be ‘world-leading’ (4*) and a further 46 per cent to be ‘internationally excellent’ (3*).

The quality of research outputs was found to have improved significantly since the last exercise in 2008, confirming other independent evidence of the UK’s world-leading position and enhanced performance. Benchmarked against international standards, 22 per cent of research outputs in the REF were judged to be of world-leading (4*) quality, up from 14 per cent in 2008. A further 50 per cent were judged to be of internationally excellent (3*) quality, up from 37 per cent.

The REF provides accountability for public investment in research and demonstrates the benefits of that investment. The results provide benchmarks and public information about the research performance of universities. The results will be used by the four UK higher education funding bodies to allocate research funding to universities – around £2 billion per year from 2015-16.

The REF has recognised excellence wherever it is found, both in the most research-intensive universities and in a much broader group of institutions of all sizes and types. Excellence was found in all forms of research, including a substantial body of world-leading interdisciplinary work. Much of the research resulted from collaboration between universities and the REF gives full recognition to all partners for the excellence of their collaborative outputs.  

The results of the REF celebrate the diversity of the research workforce. The assessment found equally high-quality work by early career researchers and more established staff, and by staff who, for example, were on maternity leave or worked part-time.

Speaking on behalf of the four UK higher education funding bodies, Professor Madeleine Atkins, Chief Executive of HEFCE, said:

"The 2014 REF represents an outstanding achievement. Rigorous assessment of high-quality research is at the heart of the REF and the results confirm that UK universities are in the top rank of an internationally competitive research community. UK research has improved from an already strong position in the last exercise, with many universities delivering more ground-breaking work of the highest quality. Universities have also demonstrated how their excellent research has impacted positively on economic growth, health and social well-being, and improved quality of life.

These achievements demonstrate the huge return on public investment in research. Continued investment is essential in developing a globally competitive knowledge economy. Shrewd public investment creates the capacity required to generate new knowledge in previously unexplored or unexpected fields and the flexibility to respond quickly and effectively to a changing environment.

REF is at the forefront of international efforts to assess the impact of research and provides new incentives to enhance the public benefits derived from research. It clearly demonstrates that UK research – in all disciplines and from a wide range of universities – makes a real difference to people’s lives. It highlights the many ways in which research has fuelled economic prosperity, influenced public policy and services, enhanced communities and civic society, enriched cultural life, improved health and wellbeing, and tackled environmental challenges.” 

Key findings

  • Across all submitted research work, overall quality was judged on average to be 30 per cent world-leading (4*) and 46 per cent internationally excellent (3*).
  • Three-quarters of universities had at least 10 per cent of their work graded as world-leading (4*). The top quarter had at least 30 per cent graded as world-leading (4*).
  • Three-quarters of universities had at least 49 per cent of their work graded as internationally excellent (3*) or above. The top quarter had at least 79 per cent graded as internationally excellent (3*) or above.
  • Across all submissions 22 per cent of research outputs were judged to be of world-leading (4*) quality, up from 14 per cent in the previous exercise in 2008. A further 50 per cent were judged to be of internationally excellent (3*) quality, up from 37 per cent.
  • Across all submissions, 44 per cent of submitted impacts were judged outstanding (4*) by over 250 external users of research, working jointly with the academic panel members. A further 40 per cent were judged very considerable (3*).

Notes

1. The REF was undertaken by the four higher education funding bodies for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. REF 2014 was managed by a team based at HEFCE on behalf of the funding bodies.

2. The REF replaces the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), last conducted in 2008.

3. The results of the REF are available at www.ref.ac.uk from 0001 on Thursday 18 December 2014.

4. All data in this press release are UK-wide.

5. Any higher education institution (HEI) in the UK that is eligible to receive research funding from one of the funding bodies was invited to participate in the exercise.

6. The REF is a discipline-based expert review process. 36 expert sub-panels, working under the guidance of 4 main panels, reviewed the submissions and made judgements on their quality. The panels comprised 898 academics and 259 users of research.

7. 154 HEIs participated, making a total of 1,911 submissions to the 36 panels. Institutions’ submissions ranged from 3 staff submitted to a single panel, to over 2,500 staff submitted to 32 panels.

8. The results are produced as ‘overall quality profiles’ which show the proportions of submitted activity judged to have met each quality level from 4* to unclassified. The quality levels are:

4*   World-leading

3*   Internationally excellent

2*   Recognised internationally

1*   Recognised nationally

U   Unclassified

9. The overall quality profile awarded to each submission is derived from three elements that were assessed:

a. The quality of research outputs. This contributes 65 per cent of the overall quality profile. The panels reviewed 191,150 submitted research outputs.

b. The social, economic and cultural impact of research. This contributes 20 per cent of the overall quality profile. This is a new feature in the assessment framework. The panels reviewed 6,975 submitted impact case studies.

c. The research environment. This contributes 15 per cent of the overall quality profile.

10. In the 2008 RAE, the quality of research outputs was assessed in a similar way to the 2014 REF assessment. Impact was not assessed in the 2008 RAE, and the research environment was assessed in a different format against different criteria. Therefore, only the outputs element is directly comparable between the two exercises.

11. For further information, see www.ref.ac.uk.