World-leading research is happening all over the UK – REF

Results from the United Kingdom’s 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF) are in – almost a year after they were due to be published because of COVID-related disruptions to the process of assessing research outputs from 76,132 academics – up 46% from the 52,000 in 2014.

Rules were changed for the latest nationwide peer-review exercise of UK research excellence to avoid ‘gaming’ by universities which could last time select which researchers to enter. The latest exercise required all research-active academics to enter at least one piece of research for evaluation by expert panels.

Institutions outside London and South East of England made major gains – with the rankers quick to produce league tables of winners.

Overall, 41% of outputs were deemed world-leading (or 4*) by assessment panels and 43% were judged internationally excellent (or 3*).

In the 2014 assessment, 30% of research achieved a 4* rating, with 46% judged to be 3*.

Comparisons with 2014 REF ‘misleading’

David Sweeney, executive chair for Research England which conducted the exercise for the whole of the UK, said a direct comparison with the 2014 REF was misleading as nearly twice as many academics were entered by their institutions this time and the weighting for research impact was increased, together with a greater emphasis on recognising team work over research superstars.

He said the REF was designed to recognise and reward research excellence and channel government research funding to the strongest performers, but he acknowledged that those doing the rankings had done a decent job in helping to illuminate what is happening to research excellence in the UK.

According to an interpretation of the results by Times Higher Education, “a number of universities outside the golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge look set to receive a funding boost from the results” after their overall performance improved compared with 2014.

They suggested that large research-intensive institutions in major regional centres such as the universities of Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool – as well as several smaller research institutions and some regional post-1992 modern universities – rose in Times Higher Education’s rankings based on the grade point average (GPA) of their results.

Which university is best for research?

The Times Higher Education ranked Imperial College London top, based on a GPA of the 11 units (subjects) of assessment (UoAs) entered; followed by the Institute of Cancer Research which entered two UoAs; with the University of Cambridge and the London School of Economics and Political Science tied for third place. The University of Bristol came fifth, with the University of Manchester taking eighth spot and the University of York in 10th place.

However, Research Professional News put the University of Oxford in top spot in their “Power and intensity” ranking, retaining the first place it received in the 2014 exercise. Oxford was only ranked in seventh place by Times Higher Education.

Research Professional News put University College London second in their power ranking, with Cambridge in third place.

Institutions outside the so-called golden triangle also did well in the Research Professional News table, with the University of Edinburgh ranked fourth, Manchester in fifth place, Bristol eighth, the University of Nottingham ninth and the University of Leeds coming 10th.

Contributing to the levelling up agenda

Sweeney said changes to the REF exercise meant they were “able to capture more of the excellent research” undertaken by UK universities and “the detailed results indicate that world-leading research is distributed widely across subjects, types of university, and in all parts of the UK”.

He claimed the latest REF showed “the significant contribution research across the whole of the UK makes to the government’s levelling up agenda” and that the UK higher education research sector is “playing its role in supporting the government to achieve its ambition as a science superpower”.

A total of 157 UK universities participated, submitting research from over 76,000 academic staff.

Impact rankings put medicine on top

The latest exercise gave added weight to the economic and social contribution of research output, or impact, which was increased from 20% when it was first introduced in REF 2014 to 25% this time round.

A table on impact produced by Times Higher Education showed medicine-focused institutions topping that ranking, with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine taking top spot and second place going to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

Sweeney told a webinar on “What does REF 2021 tell us?”, moderated by Times Higher Education features editor Paul Jump on 12 May, that while the UK’s “top-notch” institutions had done incredibly well, the latest exercise had “uncovered a lot of work that was unrecognised and missed previously” and undid many of the myths by showing “evidence of excellence all over the country”.

Grade inflation question

Asked whether the striking jump in world-leading 4* rated research was an indication of “grade inflation”, Sweeney argued it was misleading to compare crude numbers with REF 2014 and that REF 2021 had been far better at capturing what is going on in the UK, which he described as “a phenomenal research nation”.

Colette Fagan, vice-president for research at the University of Manchester, congratulated the 2021 REF for “moving away from the individual to capture the collective effort” and said they had selected “the best portfolio of research” with “a more inclusive team approach”.

James Wilsdon, digital science professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield who took part in a review of the 2014 REF results, welcomed the increased focus on impact, with the case studies used in REF 2021 to be published shortly.

“Impact case studies are an incredibly rich resource in more narrative form which we can use with government to demonstrate what the system is doing,” he said.

Simon Thomson, manager of academic and government at EMEA Consulting, Clarivate, agreed and said focusing on narratives rather than metrics is “very helpful in analysing the impact of our UK research in this country. Other countries do ask about that”.

No consensus on future of REF

However, in a blog for the Higher Education Policy Institute, its director Nick Hillman warned that there was no consensus on the value of the REF.

He wrote: “The Labour Party has described the REF as ‘discredited’ and the current shadow minister for science, research and innovation, Chi Onwurah, has complained it “encourages a cut-throat environment”, calling instead for more “strategic direction from the government” and “a more equitable funding formula”.

Hillman said: “Such comments are both vague and old and, as on funding teaching, we now need to know more about where they and other parties not currently in power stand on the role of research assessment as the next general election moves into view.”

Sweeney responded by warning that if the REF was abolished, it would probably lead to more central control by government over university research activities and asked whether that was what the university community really wanted.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.