Reflecting on the guiding principles for REF 2021

Reflecting on the guiding principles for REF 2021

31 January 2019

Today marks a significant milestone for the 2021 Research Excellence Framework, with the publication of the key documentation for the exercise, the ‘Guidance on Submissions’ and the ‘Panel criteria and working methods’. This is also a personal milestone.

I started working on 'the next REF' in late 2013 with the initiation of various strands of evaluation work. Five years later, after numerous evaluation reports, a major review of the use of metrics, an independent review of the REF itself, two consultations, recruitment of more than 700 panel chairs and members, more than 120 meetings of the panels, sub-panels and advisory panels, nine REF Steering Group meetings and many face-to-face discussions with universities and researchers, the detailed rules on the conduct of REF 2021 are now in place.

In developing any policy framework of the scale and importance of the REF it is inevitable that there will be many complex issues, where different outcomes and consequences have to be traded off against one another. In finding a way through these difficult questions, the REF Steering Group has been informed by principles of fairness, equality and transparency, as well as being careful to guard the robustness and integrity of the exercise. We have also listened to the points raised in consultations, and the high-quality advice received from the main panels, sub-panels and advisory panels. In a commitment to openness in decision making, we have set out our rationale relating to decisions on some of the new aspects of the framework in an accompanying document, Key decisions, also published today.

A major change for REF 2021 compared to the previous exercise is the removal of any aspect of staff selection, with the work of all staff with significant responsibility for research being included. Developing guidance for institutions on this aspect has required taking into account the diversity of the roles that academic staff play, as well as the differences in practice and norms of disciplines.

REF 2021 is also focussed on assessing the work of research units rather than individual staff, with new flexibilities in the approach to the selection of research outputs for assessment. These changes have also resulted in a necessary change in emphasis in policies concerning equalities-related staff circumstances. In drawing up these new policies we have sought to put researchers at the heart of our thinking, placing an emphasis on university's role in creating a supportive environment for all their staff. In this area, the advice of the Equalities and Diversity Advisory Panel has been invaluable, and their thinking is set out in an open letter from the chair, Professor Dianne Berry, also published alongside the guidance.

Not everyone will agree with the decisions that the Steering Group has taken, but in publishing our rationale and thinking we hope that everyone will understand the trade-offs we have faced, and how we have balanced them. Now, REF 2021 moves into its next phase, with universities preparing their submissions over the coming 22 months, and the assessment year and 'results day' beyond that. As institutions begin their preparations in earnest, I urge them to bear in mind the guiding principles of equity, equality and transparency and to seek to adhere to the spirit, as well as the letter, of the guidance.