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 (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.



Units of assessment

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*). 

Meaning of ratings
Rating Meaning

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

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
March 2020 to 31 July 2020 Exercise paused
31 July 2020

Exercise recommences

Census date for staff

End of assessment period (the research environment and data about research income and research doctoral degrees awarded)

31 December 2020

End of publication period (cut-off point for publication of research outputs, and for outputs underpinning impact case studies)

End of impact assessment period

noon, 31 March 2021 Closing date for submissions
May 2021 to February 2022 Panels assess submissions
12 May 2022 Publication of results on REF website
June 2022 Confidential written feedback to heads of higher education institutions
Summer 2022 Submissions and impact case studies published on REF website
Summer 2022

Publication of:

  • reports by main REF panels
  • REF Equality and Diversity Panel (EDAP) report
  • REF Interdisciplinary Research Advisory Panel (IDAP) report
  • Institutional-level Environment Pilot Panel (ILEPP) report
  • minutes of sub-panel and main panel meetings
  • REF Director report