The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a peer review assessment of the quality of research taking place at eligible UK Higher Education Institution's (HEIs). The next assessment will take place in 2021, covering the period 2014-2020. A timetable for REF 2021 is available to view.

The results will replace the outcomes of the REF 2014 which covered the assessment period 2008-2013.

More about REF 2021

Composition of REF 2021

REF 2021 will consist of a single unified framework across all subjects. The REF will be a process of expert review, informed by indicators where appropriate. Expert sub-panels for each of 34 Units of Assessments (UoAs) will carry out the assessment, working under the guidance of four broad main panels. Institutions will be invited to make submissions to each UOA, to be assessed. The REF assessment will comprise three elements: Research Outputs, Impact and Environment:

  • Research Outputs (60%) which will be assessed by peer review, informed (where appropriate) by citation information
  • Impact (25%) which will assess, via case studies, the effects of the research undertaken beyond academia, for example on the economy and society
  • Environment (15%) which will consider the research strategy, infrastructure and environment, including research income and research student numbers

The outcomes of the overall assessment will be fine-grained enough to identify excellence wherever this may be found. Panels will produce a sub-profile for each element (outputs, impact and environment), to be combined into an overall excellence profile. The profiles will show the proportion of submitted work at each point on a five-point scale (1* to 4* plus Unclassified). 

Key Differences to REF 2014

Staff and Outputs

Institutions are no longer able to select staff for submission to the REF on the basis of research quality. Instead all eligible staff with a ‘significant responsibility for Research’ must be submitted to the REF. 

Outputs are no longer directly linked to individual staff members. Instead, the number of outputs required for each submission will be calculated by multiplying the total FTE of submitted staff by 2.5 and rounding. In general, a minimum of 1 and a maximum of 5 outputs must be attributed to each member of staff. Arrangements will be in place so that some staff can submit 0 outputs, but this will be much tighter than for REF 2014 and will only apply in exceptional cases. Data on the distribution of outputs across staff in the unit will inform the assessment of the environment section.

A transitional approach to non-portability of outputs in REF 2021 will be implemented, whereby 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 previously employed when the output was first made publicly available. Full non-portability is expected in later exercises (outputs were portable in REF 2014).

Any output submitted by a former member of staff needs to have first been first made publicly available in the REF output assessment period, at a date when the former staff member was employed as ‘category A eligible’ for the REF 2021.


Impact will have a heightened importance in REF 2021. The weighting for impact has increased from 20% to 25%, at the expense of the weighting for outputs which decreases from 65% to 60%.  Impact will also be entirely assessed by case studies, with impact strategy moving to the environment section. This means that impact case studies will have increased significance in differentiating amongst submissions, particularly at the top-end.

The number of impact case studies required per staff submitted will be reduced, due to the expected overall increase in staff submitted across the sector. A change in the thresholds means that the reduction will be much more significant for larger submissions.

Each submission must include a total number of impact case studies as determined by the following table:

FTE of Category A submitted staffNumber of case studies
 Up to 19.99  2
 20 to 34.99  3
 35 to 49.99  4
 50 to 64.99  5
 65 to 79.99  6
 80 to 94.99  7
 95 to 109.99  8
 110 to 159.99  9
 160 or more  10, plus one further case study per additional 50 FTE
Summary of the table's contents

Re-submission of impact case studies submitted in REF 2014 will be permitted. These will need to be explicitly identified, with evidence of additionality of impact since REF 2014.

Further work on the definition of ‘impact additionality’ is being undertaken by the sector to establish general principles, appropriately tailored by discipline area by the panels and including consideration of where the continuation of impact within the new assessment period may itself represent additionality.

Further guidance is also expected on:

  • The criteria for impact of ‘reach and significance’.
  • Impact arising from public engagement.
  • The widening of impacts on teaching to include impacts within, as well as beyond, the submitting institution.
  • A broadening of the relationship between the underpinning research and impact from individual outputs, to include a wider body of work or research activity.


Detailed guidance on submissions and assessment criteria will be published during 2018. Institutions will be invited to make submissions during 2020 and the assessment will take place during 2021.

Consequences of REF 2021

The REF will:

  • provide accountability for public investment in research and produce evidence of the benefits of this investment.
  • provide benchmarking information and establish reputational yardsticks, for use within the HE sector and for public information.
  • inform the selective allocation of funding for research.
  • provide a rich evidence base to inform strategic decisions about national research priorities.

Equality and Diversity

A sector Equality and Diversity Advisory Panel has been established to advise on the implementation of equality measures in the REF 2014.

Interdisciplinary Research

A Sector Interdisciplinary Research Advisory Panel (IDAP) has been established to advise on the approach to support the submission and assessment of interdisciplinary research in the REF.

To support interdisciplinary research further in REF 2021 the following will be in place: 

  • Each sub-panel will have at least one appointed member to oversee and participate in the assessment of interdisciplinary research submitted in that UOA, with a specific role to ensure its equitable assessment. This role will include liaison with corresponding members on other sub-panels.
  • To enable better identification of interdisciplinary research that falls within the oversight of the appointed members described above, an optional ‘interdisciplinary identifier’ for outputs will be retained in the submission system.
  • There will be a discrete section in the environment template on the submitting unit’s structures in support of interdisciplinary research.

Open Access

Outputs submitted to REF 2021 must comply with Open Access Policy requirements.

Units of Assessment

Institutions will be invited to make submissions to 34 Units of Assessments.

Development of REF 2021

Lord Stern’s Review

The Stern Review looked at the purpose and benefits of the REF and examined the issues with the current system.

Its recommendations (published on 28 July 2016) informed a subsequent technical consultation with HEIs and UK funding agencies, which took place during 2017.

This led to a set of decisions on the format of the REF 2021, published in two tranches: a set of initial decisions, published in September 2017 and a second set of decisions on staff and outputs, published in November 2017.

The College has responded to the following consultations:

Further Information

Further information can be found on the REF 2021 website.