About REF

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the UK’s system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions, and is run by the four funding bodies in the UK (led by Research England for England). It replaced the Research Assessment Exercise, and first took place in 2014. The next exercise will be conducted in 2021. Preparations have already begun for submission of assessment material in late 2020 (see timeline).

The funding bodies’ statement on the purpose of REF is that their "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.”

REF result informs the allocation of Research England’s mainstream quality-related research (QR) funding. The University of Oxford currently receives c£80m per annum based on its performance in REF2014.

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

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 (eg publications, performances, exhibitions), case studies on the impact of research beyond academia, and the environment that supports research.

Main panel

Unit of assessment



Clinical Medicine


Public Health, Health Services and Primary Care


Allied Health Professions, Dentistry, Nursing and Pharmacy


Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience


Biological Sciences


Agriculture, Veterinary and Food Science



Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences






Mathematical Sciences


Computer Science and Informatics





Architecture, Built Environment and Planning


Geography and Environmental Studies




Economics and Econometrics


Business and Management Studies




Politics and International Studies


Social Work and Social Policy




Anthropology and Development Studies




Sport and Exercise Sciences, Leisure and Tourism



Area Studies


Modern Languages and Linguistics


English Language and Literature








Theology and Religious Studies


Art and Design: History, Practice and Theory


Music, Drama, Dance, Performing Arts, Film and Screen Studies


Communication, Cultural and Media Studies, Library and Information Management

Each part of the submission (outputs, impact case studies, environment submission) will be given a quality rating on a scale 1*-4*). Overall, these ratings mean:

Four star

Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour.

Three star

Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which falls short of the highest standards of excellence.

Two star

Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.

One star

Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.


Quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment.


The elements of each REF2021 submission will be given as weighting as follows:

  • Outputs – 60%
  • Impact – 25%
  • Environment – 15%

The results will be published for each submission as an overall excellence profile, as well as three sub-profiles (reflecting the above elements) for each submission.

Quality-related (QR) research income is allocated on the basis of REF results, and they are also used to produce various league tables and rankings.

What is new for REF2021?
The major changes to the assessment were published in Initial Decisions on the Research Excellence Framework 2021 and Decisions on Staff and Outputs

Unlike REF2014, and previous RAE exercises, there will be no staff selection in REF2021; the funding bodies have decided to implement the recommendation of the Stern review that all staff with significant responsibility for research are returned to the REF, provided they are independent researchers. Eligibility criteria for submission have been defined in the Draft guidance on submissions. The University will develop and consult on a Code of Practice in late 2018, which will set out how this guidance will be implemented across the university.

Outputs will be “decoupled” from the staff submitted for the first time; for each unit’s submission, 2.5 outputs are required per submitted staff FTE. A minimum of one, and a maximum of five, outputs will be attributed to each staff member. Arrangements will be put in place to allow staff to be returned without the required minimum of one output where certain exceptional individual circumstances have affected their ability to meet the requirement. The institutional Code of Practice will also set out how outputs will be selected and staff circumstances dealt with.
Outputs which have an ISSN (journal articles and conference proceedings) need to meet the REF Open Access policy. Please remember to “Act on Acceptance” to ensure these outputs are eligible for submission.

The weighting of impact in the overall assessment has been increased to 25%, but fewer case studies will generally be required for each UoA submission.

An institutional environment statement will be part of the assessment for the first time. Impact strategy and support will also be part of the research environment assessment.

REF timeline

The funding bodies’ full published timeline is available in the Guidance on submissions. Notable dates include:

Summer 2018

Publication and consultation on  draft guidance and panel criteria

January 2019

Publication of  final guidance and criteria

Spring 2019

Submission of institutional code of practice


Development and testing of submission system

Late 2019

Survey of submissions intentions
31 July 2020 Census date for staff; end of assessment period for impact and environment data

20 November 2020

Closing date for submissions

31 December 2020 End of assessment period for outputs
2021 Assessment phase
December 2021 Publication of Results

Oxford's previous REF results

Oxford University has been ranked number one in the UK for the quality of its research.

The official UK-wide assessment of all university research, the Research Excellence Framework, found that Oxford has the country's largest volume of world-leading research. This research sets other academic agendas around the world. The University is also rated top in the REF power rankings published by Research Fortnight.

The University submitted 2409 members of Oxford's academic staff, researching in 31 academic areas. The assessment panels rated 48 per cent of the University's research in the top 4* category while 39 per cent more was rated 3*.

The University also ranked first in 12 subjects for their volume of world-leading research. Eight other subjects were ranked first on other measures. The top-ranked subjects covered all four of the University's academic divisions – medical sciences, mathematical, physical and life sciences, social sciences and the humanities.

The Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Professor Andrew Hamilton, said: "I welcome our superb REF results, which clearly reflect our outstanding world-leading research. It is pleasing to be ranked in first place, but even more pleasing to see recognition of the fantastic contribution Oxford researchers make to knowledge across a huge range of subjects and of the real impact they have on health, prosperity, policy formation and culture around the world."

Professor Hamilton added his thanks to all University staff involved in the REF, saying: "The REF has been a huge collective effort and I would like to thank everyone involved for their contribution."

The 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) replaces the previous Research Assessment Exercise. It assesses the quality and impact of research submitted by UK universities across all disciplines. The results will be used by the four UK funding bodies to allocate block-grant research funding to universities from 2015-16.

REF 2014 results table

Oxford University’s results in REF 2014 are given below. Results are shown as the percentage of the submitted research and impact information achieving the following grades:

4* - world-leading

3* - internationally excellent

2* - recognised internationally

1* - recognised nationally

U – unclassified

The top line shows the results for the University as a whole. The table then shows the results for each academic subject, in the order that they are submitted to REF. We also show the number of staff submitted for each subject (full time equivalent).

Unit of assessment name FTE Category A staff submitted 4* 3* 2* 1* unclassified
University of Oxford overall 2409.27 48 39 11 1 0


Unit of assessment name FTE Category A staff submitted 4* 3* 2* 1* unclassified
Anthropology 55.80 23 45 28 4 0
Archaeology 33.33 41 39 18 2 0
Area Studies 71.10 36 40 19 5 0
Art and Design: History, Practice and Theory 9.00 22 53 20 5 0
Biological Sciences 223.80 47 46 7 0 0
Business and Management Studies 42.10 51 36 11 2 0
Chemistry 83.90 49 47 3 0 1
Classics 68.65 47 34 17 2 0
Clinical Medicine 238.51 53 39 8 0 0
Computer Science and Informatics 73.50 53 34 9 2 2
Development Studies 44.13 40 39 20 1 0
Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences 36.45 43 51 5 1 0
Economics and Econometrics 83.90 56 33 10 1 0
Education 39.22 65 27 8 0 0
Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Metallurgy and Materials 34.12 60 38 2 0 0
English Language and Literature 87.79 42 42 16 0 0
Geography and Environmental studies 53.85 41 42 16 1 0
General Engineering 93.79 55 41 4 0 0
History 130.05 45 37 17 1 0
Law 108.88 40 44 15 1 0
Mathematical Sciences 148.60 59 37 4 0 0
Modern Languages and Linguistics 116.75 27 43 23 5 2
Music, Drama, Dance and Performing Arts 20.25 55 34 10 1


Philosophy 71.50 51 31 16 2 0
Physics 124.70 43 49 7 1 0
Politics and International Studies 76.65 54 27 15 4 0
Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience 98.30 67 28 5 0 0
Public Health, Health Services and Primary Care 47.70 57 35 7 1 0
Social Work and Social Policy 27.40 79 14 7 0 0
Sociology 32.85 37 45 18 0 0
Theology and Religious Studies 32.70 34 38 24 4 0


View results on the REF website.


The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2008) was a UK-wide exercise run on behalf of the four UK higher education funding bodies. The results inform the Higher Education Funding Council's (HEFCE) allocations of quality rated (QR) research funding.

Of all the University of Oxford’s research activity submitted to the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise:

  • 32% was rated 4* (world leading)
  • 70% was rated either 4* or 3* (world-leading or internationally excellent)

This means that the University of Oxford was judged to have the largest submission of world-leading research (4* rated by HEFCE) in the UK. Oxford also made the largest submission of world-leading or internationally excellent research (4* or 3* rated) in the UK.

The University of Oxford has topped those league tables which factor in the number of researchers assessed, thus providing an assessment of research quality and research ‘power’.

Oxford submitted a higher number of staff than any other higher education institution taking part in RAE 2008 (2,246 FTE). More than 85% of academics were submitted.

The RAE 2008 results were compiled in a different way to the RAE 2001. In 2001 departments were given a single rating from 1-5*. This has been replaced by a quality profile which identifies the proportion of activity reaching each of the following ratings:

  • 4* Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour
  • 3* Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which nonetheless falls short of the highest standard of excellence
  • 2* Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour
  • 1* Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour

Unclassified Quality is activity that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work or which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of assessment.

Oxford's RAE 2008 results (including full details of quality profiles) are available at the RAE website.

QR funding for 2009/10

Oxford’s outstanding performance in RAE 2008 was reflected in the research funding awarded by HEFCE. The University of Oxford was awarded the highest level of QR funding from HEFCE of any University (£119.4 million for 2009/10).

Research Assessment Exercises have been held in the UK in 1986, 1989, 1992, 1996, 2001 and 2008. The RAE is conducted jointly by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) and the Department for Employment and Learning, Northern Ireland (DEL).


  1992 1996 2001
Clinical Laboratory Sciences (Clinical Laboratory Sciences) - 5 5
Clinical Laboratory Sciences (Dunn School of Pathology) 4 5* 5*
Community-based Clinical Subjects 4 5* 5*
Hospital-based Clinical Subjects 5 5* 5*
Anatomy 5 5 5
Physiology 5 5 5
Pharmacology 5 5 5*
Biochemistry 5 5* 5
Psychology 5 5* 5*
Biological Sciences (Zoology) 5 5 5
Biological Sciences (Plant Sciences) 3 4 4
Chemistry 5 5* 5*
Physics 5 5* 5*
Earth Sciences 5 5* 5*
Pure Mathematics 5 5* 5*
Applied Mathematics (1992 - included in Pure Maths) - 5* 5
Statistics and Operational Research 5 4 5*
Computer Science 5 5* 5
General Engineering 5 5* 5*
Metallurgy and Materials 5 5* 5*
Geography 5 4 4
Law 5 5* 5*
Anthropology 5 4 5
Economics and Econometrics 5 5* 5
Politics and International Studies 4 5* 5*
Social Policy and Social Administration - 3a 4
Sociology 4 5 5
Business and Management Studies 3 4 5
Middle Eastern and African Studies 4 5 5
East and South Asian Studies 5 - -
Asian Studies - 5* 5*
English Language and Literature 5 5* 5*
Celtic Studies 5 5 5
French 4 5* 5*
German and related languages 5 - -
German, Dutch and Scandinavian Languages - 5* 5
Italian 5 5 5*
Russian 3 - -
Russian, Slavonic and East European Languages - 5 5*
Spanish 4 -  
Iberian and Latin American Languages: Spanish - 5 -
Iberian and Latin American Languages: Portuguese - 4 -
Spanish and Portuguese - - 5
Linguistics 4 5 5*
Classics and Ancient History 5 - -
Classics, Ancient History, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies - 5* 5*
Archaeology 5 5* 5*
History 4 5* 5
Philosophy 5 5* 5*
Theology, Divinity and Religious Studies 5 5 5*
Art and Design 3 5 4
Music 3 5* 5*
Education 4 5 5


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