Approximately every six years UK universities are asked to submit examples of their best research to be assessed by a team of academics and industry experts - this is known as Research Excellence Framework (REF). The process is designed to ensure that public money is spent effectively - last time, only subject areas that were awarded three and four stars secured research funding. 

The last REF was published in December 2014, replacing the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), and will be used by the funding bodies to allocate block-grant research funding to universities from 2015-16. Universities were asked to submit examples of research projects staff have completed in up to 36 subject areas. They could chose how many of their academics they entered to the REF, but each individual must submit at least four examples of research, published between the years 2008-13. 

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Research was also judged according to the quality of research output (65%) and the vibrancy of the research environment (15%) which included factors such as the number of PhD students within a department, and its impact on outside academia (20%), whereby the government hopes to reward universities that engage with business and civil society. Furthermore universities had to provide case studies proving their impact and a research strategy showing how the university engages with research users.

The four UK higher education funding bodies (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) then use this data to allocate approximately £2 billion per year of research funding to UK universities.They aim to support a dynamic and internationally competitive UK research sector that makes a major contribution to economic prosperity, national wellbeing, and the expansion and dissemination of knowledge. 

The results also determine institutions' rankings in league tables; a poor performance can close a department, while a top rating means steady funding. 

As well as informing funding allocations, the REF provides accountability for public investment in research, demonstrates its benefits, and provides important reputational yardsticks and benchmarking information about the research performance of UK universities.

How can you tell which university has done well in the REF?

If you look at university websites, all state their very best results, and it's hard to know how they really performed! There are so many measures from which universities can choose from, they all seem like they're top of the table somewhere. 

There are a number of ways in which universities cite their results:

Quality

is recorded through a one to four star system:

ResultDefinition
Four star Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance, and rigour
Three star Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour, but falls short of the highest standards of excellence
Two star Quality that is recognised internationality in terms of originality, significance and rigour
One star Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of 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 purposeof the assessment. 

and if universities quote that '50% of their research was judged to be world-leading or internationally excellent' this means that 50% of their research quality was given a 4* or 3* result. They might also state that they achieved a grade point average GPA of, say 2.7, which means that they've added their scores from each of the results they were assessed on and divided it by the number of assessments to give an average. 

Impact

Universities might say that they've come top in a subject based on impact

Research Environment

Universities might say that they've come top in a subject based on research environment. 

Overall Result

This is the quality, impact and research environment figure combined. 

Research Power

The institution’s overall GPA divided by the exact total number of full-time equivalent staff it submitted to the REF. It is an attempt to combine volume and quality to produce a ranking that gives a more accurate indication than GPA of the relative amount of quality-related research funding each institution is likely to receive.

University Improvements

Universities might also mention how many more people or departments they've submitted to the recent REF and how their results have improved since the 2008 RAE. 

League Tables

There are also a number of ways in which league tables cite how well a university has done in the REF 2014, so universities can move up and down the rankings accordingly. The Guardian uses a power ranking, whilst the Times Higher Education uses the GPA. The Times Higher Education also lists universities by subject, impact and research environment if you are interested in looking at the results in more detail. 

2014 REF: A Summary

  • 154 Universities took part
  • 1,911 submissions
    • 52,077 academic staff
    • 191,232 research outputs
    • 6,975 impact case studies