Research England launches real-time REF review

Research England launches real-time REF review

11 April 2018

Research England is announcing a pilot to explore a longitudinal, real-time evaluation approach for the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF). The pilot will be led by research teams at Cardiff University and the University of Sheffield, and will test the feasibility of evaluating the perceptions, experiences and understanding of the REF among academics across career stages, and in a range of departments and universities. This formative approach is new to REF evaluation and will be informed by a strong methodological grounding in social and environmental psychology and academic and applied research policy.

The REF is the world’s largest national assessment exercise. It informs the allocation of approximately £2bn of public investment in research each year, provides accountability for public investment and evidences its benefits, whilst also informing our understanding and incentivising the quality of research in the UK.

Preparations for REF 2021 are now underway, with panels in place and extensive work being undertaken with the sector to inform and develop the criteria for the next exercise. Alongside this preparatory work, we are already giving thought to how we will evaluate REF 2021, taking into account our experience of extensive evaluation in 2014 (Review REF 2014) and the specific changes made to the next exercise in 2021.

The pilot for a real-time REF review will involve four universities from across the sector, academics from eight units of assessment, and members of management and professional staff with responsibility for managing the REF process. The pilot will launch in the spring with the results available by early 2019.

Executive Chair of Research England, David Sweeney, welcoming the pilot, said:

“UK universities deliver world-leading research and are recognised globally for the quality of their outputs and diverse impact. National research assessment has been part of our high-performing system for over 30 years and has developed over that period through consultation with the community. This work presents an opportunity to test evaluating REF 2021 in a new way, informing the collection of evaluative data for shaping exercises post 2021.”

Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University and principal investigator for the pilot, Dr Netta Weinstein, explains:

“As the sector prepares for REF 2021, it will be important to understand the influences on our perceptions of, and attitudes towards, the REF. While many individuals in academia hold strong opinions about aspects of the REF, little rigorous research has been conducted into these. We want to better understand the changing effects of the REF on research cultures, institutions and individuals.”

Professor of Research Policy at the University of Sheffield and co-investigator for the pilot, James Wilsdon, adds:

“The REF rarely fails to provoke controversy, but it also serves a variety of purposes for the UK research community. Following evaluations of REF 2014, including the Stern Review and my Metric Tide review, a series of changes are being introduced for 2021. Will these succeed in their goal of reducing the burdens of the REF? Will they improve the way it’s administered and experienced by researchers and institutions? This is what the Real Time REF review aims to find out.”


  1. The pilot for a Real Time REF Review will involve four universities: Cardiff University; University of Sheffield; University of Sussex; and Nottingham Trent University.
  2. The study will test the feasibility of evaluating REF 2021 in this way and will inform research assessment approaches post REF 2021.
  3. The research team for the pilot comprises: Dr Netta Weinstein (PI) and Professor Geoff Haddock (School of Psychology, Cardiff University); and Professor James Wilsdon and Dr Jennifer Chubb (Department of Politics and School of Education, University of Sheffield) and will also be linked to the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE). The pilot is being co-funded by Research England, Cardiff University and University of Sheffield.
  4. The REF is undertaken by the four UK higher education funding bodies (Research England, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, the Scottish Funding Council and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland).
  5. Research England shapes healthy, dynamic research and knowledge exchange in English universities. We are responsible for funding, engaging with and understanding these institutions, and working with devolved funding bodies and the Office for Students to understand their strategies, capabilities and capacity. We support and challenge universities to create new knowledge, strengthen the economy, and enrich society. We distribute over £2.2b to universities in England every year in the form of quality-related research (QR) funding, and via the Higher Education Innovation Fund. We are responsible for administering the Research Excellence Framework, used to inform QR funding, and for delivering the forthcoming Knowledge Exchange Framework. We also support specific activities with dedicated project funding, including the £900m UK Research Partnership Investment Fund, and the £100m Connecting Capability Fund. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 established Research England as a Council of UK Research and Innovation alongside the seven Research Councils and Innovate UK., @ResEngland