SOAS University of London


Research Excellence Framework 2021

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions. It was first conducted in 2014, replacing the previous Research Assessment Exercise.

According to HEFCE, the REF fulfils three main purposes:

  • 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

And the conduct of the exercise is governed by the following principles:

  • Equity – the fair and equal assessment of all types of research and forms of research output
  • Equality – promoting equality and diversity in all aspects of the assessment
  • Transparency – the clear and open process through which decisions are made and information about the assessment process is shared

Submissions to REF will be made in November 2020, with the results published in December 2021. The results will provide information about the quality of institutions’ research and are expected to inform the allocation of QR (quality-related) research funding to institutions from 2022 onwards.

From 1 April 2018 HEFCE’s research and knowledge exchange functions will move to a newly created council, Research England, within the new organisation UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).  HEFCE’s REF Team will be based at Research England from this date.


Early in 2017, following publication of Lord Stern’s review of the REF Building on success and learning from experience the four Higher Education Funding Bodies set out proposals for the second REF in a consultation document and invited views from HEIs and other organisations with an interest in the conduct, quality, funding or use of research.

Initial Decisions

On 1 September 2017 HEFCE published Initial Decisions on the Research Excellence Framework 2021 and announced a further consultation on aspects of the Framework relating to submission of staff and output portability.  34 Units of Assessment were announced. 

The REF will continue to be a process of expert review informed by indicators, where appropriate, undertaken by expert sub-panels working under the guidance of four Main Panels. Three distinct elements will continue to be assessed: outputs, impact and environment.  The following changes were announced:

  • Profile weightings will change - Outputs 60% (-5%); Impact 25% (+5%), Environment 15% (no change).
  • There is an increased focus on interdisciplinary research - each sub-Panel will have at least one member to oversee the assessment of interdisciplinary research.
  • No institutional-level impact case studies or environment statement will be required.
  • Unit of Assessment Environment Statements will be required to describe their support for interdisciplinary research, equality and diversity, impact, collaboration with organisations beyond HE, and open research (see our strategies supporting open access and research data management).
  • Impact case studies can be a continuation of a 2014 study, but will need to provide evidence of additional impact. Impacts on teaching within the submitting institution will be allowed. All corroborating evidence will have to be submitted.

See the dedicated pages on Impact for more information.

In November 2017 HEFCE published its initial decisions regarding the submission of staff and outputs (pdf):

  • All staff with significant responsibility for research should be returned to REF 2021, provided they are independent researchers (definition of independence awaited). Contractual status will identify the majority of staff in this category. The minimum eligible fractional contract will be 0.2 FTE; such staff must have a clear connection to the submitting institution.
  • The census date for staff will be 31 July 2020.
  • All institutions will need to provide a code of practice explaining their processes for the selection of outputs and, where appropriate, the identification of staff with significant responsibility for research.
  • The average number of outputs required per FTE (employed on the census date) will be 2.5.
  • A minimum of one output will be required for each staff member returned in REF 2021 who was employed on the census date.
  • A maximum of five outputs may be attributed to individual staff members.
  • Measures to promote equality and diversity in REF 2021 will be put in place, including allowing staff to be returned without the required minimum one output where exceptional individual circumstances apply, in addition to 'unit circumstances' (definitions awaited).
  • Outputs may be submitted by both the institution employing the staff member on the census date and the originating institution where the staff member was employed when the output was first made publicly available. 
  • Two impact case studies will be required up to 14.99 FTE staff returned to the REF, plus one further case study per 15 staff returned, up to 105 FTE

Read about the School's approach to REF 2021 (MySOAS)