This week saw the long-awaited publication of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 results, more than seven years since the last exercise  (REF 2014). Undertaken by representative higher education funding bodies of the four nations of the UK, it the most comprehensive evaluation of the research impact of UK universities.

It is estimated that up to £2billion worth of research funding per year will be allocated to UK universities on the basis of the REF outcomes, making it a crucial dimension of a university’s research and funding strategy. This year’s REF assessed the research outputs of all research-active members of a university, rather than a group put forward by the institution, f making it more robust than previous iterations.

Times Higher Education publish a REF-linked university ranking according to grade point average (GPA) as default, which measures the overall quality of academic publications from a university. However, there is also an index for research power, which multiplies each institution’s GPA by the number of full-time academic staff, providing a sense of scale in addition to quality. This impacts the way a university articulates its ‘position’ in the REF; for example, Imperial College are this year’s number one in the ranking by GPA, but only 9th in the research power index. On the other hand, UCL are 2nd in the research power index, but 6th in the GPA ranking.

In the GPA-related REF rankings, Bristol (5th), Manchester (8th) and York (=10th) were all new entrants into the top 10. Cambridge and Oxford switched ranks, with Cambridge rising 2 places to =3rd, and Oxford dropping 3 places to 7th. Within the top 20, Warwick and Queen Mary University London dropped 7 and 8 places respectively. In the area around top 50, there were significant falls for Swansea University and Cranfield University, but some spectacular leaps from Nottingham Trent (up from 84th to 55th), SOAS (61st to 40th), Leicester (53rd to =30th) and Loughborough (=49th to =30th). At the lower end of the table, St Mary’s Twickenham, Sunderland, Staffordshire, and Greenwich all made significant progress to enter the top 100.

REF 2021 funding

REF and the W100

All 14 of our UK-based World 100 members remain in the top 75 of institutions ranked in this year’s REF, and with 7 in the top 20- the same as 2014. The London School of Economics (LSE) retained 3rd position (joint with Cambridge) as the highest-ranked W100 member in the GPA table. There were also significant gains since 2014 for Manchester (up 9 places to 8th), Glasgow (up 11 places to 13th), and Birmingham (up 18 places to 13th).

Using the research power index, which naturally favours larger universities, 9 W100 universities are in the top 20. Manchester are the highest place W100 by this measure, coming in at 5th, though Newcastle benefit the most from this metric, ranking 15th on the research power index as opposed to 33rd in the GPA ranking.

Looking further beneath the surface at the subject-level REF rankings, there is great news for W100 UK universities. The REF is divided into four broad ‘Panels’, and a total of 34 subject categories. There was at least one W100 member in the top 10 of every one of those 34 categories, and four or more W100 universities in the top 10 of 15 categories. In the ‘Allied health professions, dentistry, nursing and pharmacy’ category, six out of the top 10 were W100 members, with Kings, Manchester, Southampton and Queen’s University Belfast making up the top 4.

REF 2021 World 100 members

Other 1st positions in REF Subject-Rankings for W100 members include: Queens University Belfast (1st – Agriculture, food and veterinary sciences), Sheffield (1st – Physics), Exeter (1st – Sport and exercise sciences, leisure and tourism), Newcastle (1st – English language and literature) and Aberdeen (1st – Theology).

REF and Reputation

The REF is a high-stakes exercise for universities as it serves as the basis of allocating competitive public research funding. It can also help to draw attention to universities for private and commercial funding, industry partnerships, international collaborations, and recruiting the best staff. As such, universities use their REF position- both overall, and within particular subject categories – as a reputation attribute in communications and wider stakeholder engagement.

It is clear that REF performance has less impact on student recruitment; W100 research confirms that prospective students tend to place teaching quality and student experience higher than research strengths in their decision-making.  However, REF performance does impact specifically on the metrics used by one UK league table: the Complete University Guide.  And leading research universities uniformly use their REF performance as part of their credentials when promoting individual courses.

For wider corporate messaging, the launch of the 2021 REF results has highlighted different approaches from W100 members in positioning their performance. Manchester- which came 8th in the GPA ranking- positioned itself as 5th in the country in terms of research power. This metric favours bigger universities as quality (GPA) is further enhanced by scale. However, a summary article on LinkedIn and one pinned tweet on the University’s twitter page was the only public information provided about the REF.

REF 2021 performance tweets

LSE highlighted its 3rd place in the GPA table, and 1st place in terms of percentage of world-leading research (in 4* journals) produced. Glasgow- which had one of the highest leaps in the overall REF ranking-  had several tweets and re-tweets, though none of them highlighted either overall or subject-based achievements, instead drawing attention to Glasgow’s broader research excellence.

What this shows is that whilst REF performance is certainly important to a university’s reputation, the major impact will be felt more directly with the major research councils and other funding organisations.

So although the ‘buzz’ around REF in public social channels appears less than in other rankings (most notably the recent THE Impact Rankings), universities and their academic departments will use reputational collateral from the REF to enhance opportunities to secure vital research fundings in the next few years.

REF and Impact

Beyond the ‘buzz’, the REF results announcement also signals the culmination of a long process of collecting and writing up case studies, which in most universities involves a huge degree of collaboration between academics and communications teams.

These ‘impact case studies’, whilst being an important element of the assessment exercise, also provide universities with longer lasting opportunities to build reputation. They are ready-made summaries of ways in which universities are creating real world impact, and universities can use them over the next period to engage with a wider range of key stakeholders.

In total, universities submitted  6,781 impact case studies part of the assessment process, representing an incredibly impactful statement of the power of universities to improve wider society.

“The real differences made to people’s lives, both across the UK and around the world, that are narrated through the impact case studies are in many cases humbling and, in our current times, a significant example of this is provided in our universities’ outstanding contribution to the Covid pandemic,” said Steven Hill, director of research at Research England.

Recent W100 research showed the progress that the university sector made during the pandemic in engaging with the wider public, and the impact case studies give comms teams great opportunities to develop this work still further.