An overview of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and REF2021. You can also find a short summary of REF in our What is REF? video and guide


The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a nationwide system which assesses the quality of research conducted at UK higher education institutions (HEI). Previously evaluated under the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), the first REF took place in 2014. The exercise is undertaken by the UK's higher education funding bodies: Research England (formerly HEFCE), the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) and the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland (DfE).


The Research Excellence Framework (REF) was last held in 2014, when UK institutions were invited to submit outputs, impact case studies and evidence about the quality of their research environment for assessment. Panels of peer reviewers assessed the institutional submissions in research areas, or units of assessment.

The outcome was a quality profile for each unit of assessment which rated the quality of outputs, impacts and the research environment as world leading (4*), internationally excellent (3*), recognised internationally (2*) or recognised nationally (1*). For the general institutional quality profile, the elements of assessment were weighted as follows: publications 65%, impact 20% and research environment 15%.

In the Green Paper Higher Education:  teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills confirmed their intention to hold the next Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessment exercise before 2021.

In December 2015, Lord Stern was requested by the Government to complete an independent review of the REF2014. As part of the review, institutions were invited to comment on the final report of that review and recommendations for future exercises was published in July 2016.

 Following on from the Stern, HEFCE published a consultation on the proposed changes to REF

  • HEFCE Consultation document


The aim of the research councils and the purpose of the REF, as summarised from, is to:

  • Inform the selective allocation of research funding to HEIs from 2022-2023 onwards.
  • Provide accountability for public investment in research and demonstrate its benefits.
  • Provide Benchmarking information and establish the reputation of institutions in research.

In addition the Stern Review identified further roles fulfilled by the REF:

  • Provide a rich evidence base to inform strategic decisions about national research priorities.
  • Create a strong performance incentive for HEIs and individual researchers.
  • Inform decisions on resource allocation by individual HEIs and other bodies.


The REF is structured around 34 subject-based units of assessment (UOAs) which in turn belong to one of four main panels (A-D). Submissions are evaluated by expert panels in each of the UOAs under guidance of the main panels. The expert panels consist of senior academics, international members and research users outside of academia.


Each submission is evaluated on the quality of research outputs, the impact of research and the environment that supports research





Research publications and other outputs, assessed by peer review

Impact case studies, showcasing research that has produced benefits for research users and wider society

Description of research environment, facilities, E&D arrangements, open access, sustainability and vitality of submitting unit

Minimum 1, maximum 5 per researcher;  average 2.5

1 for each unit of assessment + 1 for the first 20 FTE ; + 1 for every further 15 FTE


60% of overall outcome

25% of overall outcome

15% of overall outcome


Draft Guidance

The initial guidance on REF2021, published by HEFCE 1 September 2017, can be found here. This includes a letter summarising the decisions

In November 2017, HEFCE published key decisions on staff and outputs for REF2021; these include the number of outputs required per member of staff, the model for portability of outputs and the rules around the volume of impact case studies required.

In July 2018, the REF team published draft guidance documents

Following consultation on these documents, the final Guidance was published by the REF team in January 2019.

Previously issued guidance and documentation for REF 2021 is available at

University information sessions and presentations

In August 2018, the University organised information sessions for staff which summarised the main points arising from the initial guidance and provided an opportunity for staff to discuss any queries and raise any issues that may help to inform our institutional response to the consultation.  Staff were also informed of the next steps in our institutional preparations for REF 2021.

Please click here to access a copy of the powerpoint slides used in the information sessions.  Please click here to access a Panopto recording of the 30 August session.