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The REF was first carried out in 2014, replacing the previous Research Assessment Exercise. The REF is undertaken by the four UK higher education funding bodies: Research England, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), and the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland (DfE).

What is the REF's purpose? 

The funding bodies’ shared policy aim for research assessment is to secure the continuation of a world-class, dynamic and responsive research base across the full academic spectrum within UK higher education. We expect that this will be achieved through the threefold purpose of the REF:

  • To provide accountability for public investment in research and produce evidence of the benefits of this investment.
  • To provide benchmarking information and establish reputational yardsticks, for use within the HE sector and for public information.
  • To inform the selective allocation of funding for research. 

How is the REF carried out? 

The REF is a process of expert review, carried out by expert panels for each of the 34 subject-based units of assessment (UOAs), under the guidance of four main panels. Expert panels are made up of senior academics, international members, and research users. 

For each submission, three distinct elements are assessed: the quality of outputs (e.g. publications, performances, and exhibitions), their impact beyond academia, and the environment that supports research. 

How is the REF governed?

REF Steering Group

The REF Steering Group comprises members of each of the UK higher education funding bodies. It is chaired by the Director of Research at Research England and serviced by representatives from the REF team. The group has responsibility for matters of policy and the programme of work, agreeing collective recommendations on the high-level framework, and putting these forward to the boards of the funding bodies. The Steering Group signs off key guidance developed by the REF team, provides oversight of key implementation risks, and agrees the draft REF budget to put forward for approval from the funding bodies. The group also draws attention of the REF team to matters of importance or sensitivity within the devolved territories, and acts as the final arbiter in REF 2021-related appeals or disputes.

REF Data Collection Steering Group

The REF Data Collection Steering Group (DCSG) provides oversight and direction for the REF Technical Working Group (TWG) in the development of the REF submissions system. The group's remit includes ensuring that all data required for the framework can be collected from higher education institutions (HEIs), that the data is processed and managed effectively, and can be made accessible to the REF panels. The group also supports the TWG in the integration of citation data from suppliers within the REF data collection system, agreeing and overseeing a robust testing strategy, providing advice on opportunities to develop consistency in the data collected in the REF data collection system with data collected by HESA and the Research Councils, to agree and oversee the system training strategy, and to monitor and advise on key implementation risks. The membership includes representation from a range of individuals with detailed knowledge and experience of research adminsitration or information systems.