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Initial decisions next steps December 2023

The Research Excellence Framework and its precursors have been designed by the four UK higher education funding bodies – in collaboration with the community. This REF will be no different.

The consultation on the Initial Decisions, published in the summer of 2023, probed the community’s thinking on most of the major decisions. The quality and volume of input received was high, and together, the four UK funding bodies have been carefully considering the community’s feedback; working to balance the principles agreed that will underpin this exercise, with the burden of the changes that will be required to meet those.

A summary report will be published in spring 2024. Here we outline the decisions and next steps that we can announce now with recognition that further work is needed in some areas.

These next steps do not include our work on the approach to assessing people, culture and environment. Our opportunity to provide written comments closed on 1 December, and we are commissioning further work on indicators which will be delivered during 2024. Alongside this work we are considering options for testing and piloting the expanded element, and will provide further information on our decisions in this area in January 2024. When the work developing people, culture and environment is more advanced, the funding bodies will review the proposed weighting of 25 per cent, based on the evidence accumulated.

We also expect to launch a consultation on REF open access requirements during January, and will begin recruiting panels and advisory groups in the early spring.

In Spring 2024 further decisions will be published, providing more detail on points of policy for the forthcoming REF cycle. This will include further details on the information required to supplement submission of outputs and impact case studies. Following the analysis of the open access consultation, we will also confirm policy in that area.

Further detail on the issues consulted upon and our updated position is provided below. The major decision that funding bodies are announcing now is: an extension to the timing for the next REF exercise.  

The next REF will be REF 2029, with results published in December 2029

This is in recognition of the complexities for HEIs in: 

  1.   the preparation for using HESA data to determine REF volume measures 
  2.   fully breaking the link between individual staff and institutional submissions, and
  3.   reworking of institutional Codes of Practice  

The REF Team is working through dependencies in relation to this change, including the on-going work on people, culture and environment. We will provide an updated timeline as soon as possible. 

Using HESA Data to determine the Volume Measure. There will be no fundamental changes to the plans outlined in the Initial Decisions document

The Volume Measure will be determined using HESA data on the number of staff with significant responsibility for research (SRR). Our ambition is that HESA data becomes a single trusted source of information about the university research population that will support analyses beyond REF. 

This move is part of work to break the link between individuals and the content of submissions and remove potential perverse incentives linked to a REF census date “cliff edge”. While the funding bodies recognise that initial effort will be required by HEIs to collect data on an annual basis, this change is designed to future-proof the REF and build a system that will become better integrated and less burdensome over time.  

We are extending the timeline for this REF assessment exercise to allow additional time for institutions to resolve challenges with using HESA data for REF volume purposes, and to allow testing of the approach the REF Team will take when using this data to calculate average full-time equivalent staffing levels. We will continue to work closely with HESA to ensure any changes to the HESA data collection process and the evolving REF timetable are carefully considered and communicated. 

We will also work closely with the small number of institutions which, due to local employment structures, do not return data on all eligible staff with significant responsibility for research to HESA to ensure that their staff volume can be calculated robustly.

Breaking the link between individual staff members and unit submissions, including removing minimum and maximum outputs that can be submitted from specific individuals. The underlying principle outlined in the Initial Decisions will be maintained, however further work is needed to ensure the balance of benefit and the minimisation of unintended consequences.

Moves to break the link between individual staff members and unit submissions were welcomed by the community and this principle will be maintained. Further work will be undertaken to ensure this change does not disincentivise inclusivity (including for minoritised or marginalised groups, or early career researchers) arising from the overrepresentation of outputs by a small number of researchers.

We want to avoid the reintroduction of staff census lists or staff circumstance exercises for institutions, but institutions may be asked to provide justification if their submissions do not appropriately represent their research community. We are working to find a balanced approach to this with options including:

  • The use of institutional Codes of Practice and Unit of Assessment people, culture and environment statements to demonstrate how decisions are taken to ensure output submissions are representative of the staff with significant responsibility for research submitted to HESA.
  • The use of sample audit testing if a significant proportion of staff with significant responsibility for research have not been included in an institution’s submission pool. This would not be an audit of individual researchers, rather it would seek assurance that staff identified in HESA as having SRR are being provided with time and resources to undertake research.
  • Reintroducing maximum output limits per individual staff member. This would require institutions to create a list of outputs with staff against them, rather than a list of staff with outputs. We are exploring how this may be automated through the REF submissions system. 

The revised timeline for the next REF cycle will allow further development and testing of policy approaches, minimising unintended consequences and ensuring HEIs are able to prepare for any implementation processes required to support these changes, including necessary amendments to Codes of Practice.

Institutions may submit any output where there is a demonstrable and substantive link to the submitting institution within the REF period. Further work is needed to develop our guidance on how institutions provide evidence of demonstrable and substantive links. 

Institutions will need to be able to demonstrate a substantive link to any submitted output. This is to address concerns regarding the “import” of staff with eligible outputs during the submission period, where those outputs have not been created with the support of the submitting unit. 

Consultation responses supported the use of institutional affiliation as listed on published text-based outputs as an indicator of a demonstrable and substantive link. Additional suggested indicators included staff contracts and types of contracts, institutional funding towards the research which produced the output, and local processes and practices to support those on research-enabling contracts to produce research outputs. Further work will be undertaken in the preparation of Guidance on Submissions and Guidance on Codes of Practice to provide suggestions of what might be considered to demonstrate substantive links. Guidance on evidence to be provided in event of audit will be indicative; it will not include an exhaustive list. 

The ability to move between institutions is important to career development, particularly for early career researchers, and funding bodies recognise that it is possible for more than one institution to have supported the development of a single output. On balance, the benefits of supporting output portability outweigh the disadvantage of any potential increase in complexity around demonstrating a substantive link between an institution and an output. 

The funding bodies are committed to ensuring the next REF exercise is inclusive of all research-related staff, does not disincentivise the movement of staff between institutions or sectors and encourages engagement with practitioners and those with non-academic expertise.

The proposal for co-authored outputs outlined in Initial Decisions is confirmed.  Outputs sole-authored by PGR students, including PhD theses, will not be eligible for submission, nor will those produced by individuals employed on contracts with no research-related expectations. 

Informed by consultation responses received, we can confirm that outputs which are sole-authored by postgraduate research students, including PhD theses, will not be eligible for submission. Outputs produced by individuals employed on academic contracts with no expectation of research (e.g. those on teaching-only contracts) will not be eligible for submission. This decision responds to concerns that unreasonable pressure may be placed on staff who are not provided with time or resources to undertake or enable research. This does not apply to those on non-academic contracts where the individual contributes to the unit’s research (e.g. technicians). An institution’s pool of submissions is therefore likely to predominantly reflect those individuals with significant responsibility for research.  

Proposals for co-authored outputs, as outlined in Initial Decisions, were agreed to strike the right balance between supporting collaboration and ensuring the assessment focuses on the work of the unit and will remain unchanged. 

The overall Unit of Assessment structure will remain unchanged from REF2021. 

The consultation responses did not provide sufficient evidence that the benefits of making major changes to the structure of Units of Assessment (UoA) would outweigh any associated burden. However, important considerations were raised in relation to the placement and visibility of some disciplines within certain UoAs, the potential workload for some panel members within some UoAs, and the importance of diversity within panels. These points will be built into planning for and with panels, and engagement with relevant subject communities, moving forward. The REF Team will also explore the use of technology to provide output profiles for subdisciplines and cross UoA subject areas.  

There will be no fundamental changes to the proposed measure to account for the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

The continuation of this measure has been widely supported. Additional guidance will be provided to panels given the differing impact of the pandemic across disciplines. Funding bodies remain alive to the need to consider additional force majeure events, such as war, fire, and the impact of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete in some buildings. This will be considered further throughout the development of Guidance on Submissions and Panel Guidance. 

The minimum number of Impact Case Studies that an institution can submit per disciplinary submission will be reduced to one, and the removal of the 2* quality threshold is confirmed. Proposals related to the revision of the thresholds for the number of Impact Case Studies that are required to be submitted, and the weighting of the structured statement will be considered further. 

The majority of respondents to the Initial Decisions consultation supported the reduction to the minimum number of case studies that can be submitted to one. Funding bodies recognise that this may mean that the scores for some case studies will be identifiable. Based on the responses received from the community, funding bodies accept this is a feature that needs to be balanced with the reduction in burden to submitting institutions.  

The vast majority of respondents supported the removal of the 2* minimum quality threshold for the research that underpins impact case studies. Responses from the community to the proposed changes to thresholds, relating to the number of impact case studies that can be submitted, suggested appetite for the changes to go further than proposed. There were mixed views on the proposed sliding scale for weighting of impact case studies. Funding bodies recognise the issues raised – particularly for small units, small institutions and newer institutions – and will undertake further work on both of these issues. 

See more information about Initial decisions.