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Countdown to REF 2021 – what next?

by Professor Saul Becker | May 9, 2022 | Strategy & Transformation

The announcement of the REF 2021 results is almost here. Higher education institutions are gearing up for publication on 12 May 2022, although they will know their own results privately today.

University communications and external relations teams have been working hard to produce various narratives to communicate their REF2021 outcomes to external and internal audiences. Some of these narratives include spin and gloss, especially where results are less positive than had been expected. All institutions want – indeed need – to showcase what they are best at, including their specific ‘pockets’ of excellence: subjects (Units of Assessment, UoA) where they have done exceptionally well, with very high proportions of world-leading research and significant, far-reaching, clearly articulated and convincingly evidenced impact. But the REF results are not just about research and the future distribution of quality-related (QR) money.

The outcome of REF will cast a long shadow forward, also influencing how a university is seen and regarded by potential home and international students, other researchers in the UK and overseas, funders, business, local and regional partners, and many more besides.

The timeline to announcements, and what each will include, is shown below. By summer 2022, most data/reports will be in the public domain and new rankings of research excellence, power and impact will by then have become well established, understood and believed. Early versions of league tables will appear in the press from 12 May. These will evolve and become more refined over the coming weeks and months, as further details are added and more nuanced tables are created by a diversity of sources. University and subject-level (UoA) rankings will have multiple impacts: on the amount of QR money that follows to institutions; on student applications (home and international); on other domestic and international league table positions; on a university’s own sense of its research intensity and culture; and on morale – whether the institution and its constituent communities will be at ease with themselves and with each other.

Some institutions will surprise themselves and do better than they had thought or perhaps feared. We are likely to see ‘pockets of research excellence’ at subject level spread widely across the sector. Others will do less well, causing concerns within the institution – especially in subject areas which are at the lower end of any league tables.

Some institutions will take pole positions in terms of quality and power (depth and breadth of excellence). We most likely already know which these are. They have many years of accomplishments, a strong and enduring research culture, many research-active staff, resources (human, money, capital, infrastructure), professional services closely aligned with research priorities and ambitions, leadership and governance, reward (financial, reputational), and more. Some of these institutions don’t regard REF or any research assessment exercise as the driving force for their research priorities and strategy. Great institutions can deliver great research across the board, irrespective of whether there is a REF to measure greatness.

It takes years – and multiple REF cycles – for a university to position itself for a great outcome. How universities learned from and responded to the 2014 REF results, and to the earlier 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), will have placed some institutions on the right path to achieving a good or great outcome in the 2021 exercise. It takes time and investment, an enabling leadership, and buy-in from across the institution, to establish and maintain a positive research culture that commands widespread support and action, and delivers results.

For many institutions – especially those with existing pockets of excellence that are transitioning to being research-intensive – learning from REF2021 and preparing for the next exercise (whatever it is called, and whenever it is called) should be the priority. The response of leadership and management – at University Council, Executive and subject levels – and by colleagues will be critical to morale, productivity and the good health of the institution going forward. This response is a measure of the institution’s own capacity and capability to be a learning organisation, and to use that learning constructively and purposefully to re(de)fine research priorities, culture, infrastructure, and what the University stands for – its Unique Selling Proposition.

So, what should institutions be doing once the REF2021 outcomes are announced in May 2022? Here are two questions they might want to address immediately:

  • How close to your expected results (through your internal review processes and structures) were you in terms of the actual results (at University and UoA levels, for outputs, impact case studies, environment, etc)? What does this tell you about your internal organisation, structures, processes, infrastructure and your institution’s ability to accurately judge quality in outputs, case studies, environment, etc? If there is a significant divergence in expected versus actual results – especially in some subject areas – why is this, what does it mean, and what do you need to do now?
  • How has the University as a whole, and specific UoAs, moved from their 2014 REF and 2008 RAE positions? Which areas have gone from good to great? Which have stalled, and which have gone backwards? Most importantly, why?

Going forward, and preparing for the next REF, a shift in research culture will be needed in some universities to develop the institution’s research capabilities: to move from where they are now, to better, to good or to great. Most of that progress will be provided by academics working in close partnership with professional services. And a well-developed and effectively implemented research and innovation strategy will prepare the University not just for future research assessments, but also for increased levels of government funding; higher student recruitment; enhanced regional, national and international reputation; and greater engagement and impact.

Preparing for future research exercises requires vision, ambition, prioritisation, leadership, planning, strategy, collaboration, partnership, investment, and sometimes disinvestment (which is often the elephant in the room). Management and leadership need to be clear and communicate positively their expectations of what staff need to do in terms of quality outputs, impact, etc, as appropriate to career stage. Senior leaders, academics and professional services will play the key role in developing a positive research culture and environment, moving research activities forward with appropriate pace and support, and ensuring that staff feel valued and are recognised for their contributions.

A good to great outcome in future research assessments requires the close alignment of people, vision, ambition, culture, organisation, process, communication and resource, integrated through a clear research strategy, with appropriate indicators of progress.

Now is the time to learn the lessons from REF2021 and to plan for that future. Halpin has a dedicated Research Excellence Team who can support you to analyse your REF results, benchmark them and review your research strategy going forward. Contact us to find our more.

REF2021 Results Timeline:

9 May 2022: During the morning, the REF team will release individual institutions’ results to the Head of each HEI, in confidence and under embargo until 12 May. The embargoed results will contain the same data as the wider publication: the overall quality profile, the three sub-profiles, the FTE number of Category A staff and the proportion of Category A eligible staff, for each submission made by that institution.

10 May 2022: In the morning, the REF team will provide HEIs with all results, under embargo.

11 May 2022: Results released under embargo to the press.

12 May 2022: The REF team on behalf of the four UK higher education funding bodies will publish the results of REF2021. The results will be made available at 00:01am on 12 May via the REF website. Users will be able to download all results from the website or a selection. Publication will include the overall quality profile awarded to each submission, by Unit of Assessment (UoA). The overall quality profiles will show the proportions of research activity judged to meet each of four starred quality levels, in steps of one per cent. Alongside the overall quality profile, the REF team will also publish the output, impact and environment sub-profiles that were combined to produce the overall quality profile for each submission rounded to one decimal place, the full-time equivalent (FTE) number of Category A submitted staff and the proportion of Category A eligible staff included in each submission. The results for joint submissions will be listed separately against each institution involved in the submission. The UoA summary data will also be published on 12 May.

June 2022: The REF team will provide written confidential feedback to the Head of each HEI. This will comprise, for each submission, concise feedback summarising the reason for the quality profiles awarded, with reference to the published assessment criteria. In the case of joint submissions, this will be provided confidentially to the Heads of all institutions involved. Concise feedback will also be provided to the institution on its individual staff circumstances, at institutional level.

Summer 2022: The REF team will publish all the submissions on the REF website. The funding bodies will also publish the impact case studies as a searchable database. For each submission, the following will be published: details of submitted outputs; the submitted case studies; and the submitted environment data and institutional and unit-level templates. The list of submitted staff and information on the attribution of outputs to individual staff members will not be published. Further reports will also be published from the REF Equality and Diversity Panel (EDAP); REF Interdisciplinary Research Advisory Panel (IDAP); Institutional-level Environment Pilot Panel (ILEPP); minutes of sub-panel and main panel meetings; and the REF Director Report.

(Source: REF2021 Letters to VCs and Principals, 6 January 2022 and 23 September 2021)

Professor Saul Becker is the former Provost of the University of Sussex and was also a Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Birmingham. He has been a Director of Research at three universities and a REF sub-panel member. He is a Halpin Senior Advisor and member of Halpin’s Research Excellence Team.