REF 2021: more than 40% of submissions given highest classification

As the results of the Research Excellence Framework 2021 are released, universities wait anxiously for details of the impact to funding allocations

The results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 have been published, offering a seven-year snapshot of research achievements across 157 UK universities.

Universities received their results earlier this week – and vice-chancellors and their teams will have pored over the figures, which the four regional HE funding bodies will use to allocate around £2 billion of annual quality-related (QR) funding.

Universities submitted examples of their work in three different categories:

  • Research outputs, such as book chapters, designs, journal articles and exhibitions
  • The impact of their research on society, the economy, culture, policy or public services
  • The “research environment”, details the strategy, resources and infrastructure that support research, and researchers.
  • Submissions are weighted as 60% to outputs, 25% to impact and 15% to environment.


Forty-one per cent of submissions were “world-leading”, the highest possible award: significantly, this figure is 11 percentage points higher than last REF, when 30% attracted the prestigious 4* rating. Forty-three per cent were “internationally excellent”, the second-highest rating submissions can receive, up from 36%.

The four UK higher education funding bodies – Research England, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), and the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland (DfE) – collectively conduct the REF.

World-leading research submissions were found in every university in all corners of the country, assessors said.

At least 15% of submissions were graded 4* at three-quarters of UK universities, an increase from the previous REF when at least 10% was graded 4* at three-quarters of universities. Nearly all (99%) of universities produced “world-leading” research. More than 80% of submissions were judged as either 4* or 3* in each UK nation and English region.

The REF 2021 results will direct billions of pounds of research funding. Based on current QR allocation methodologies, the biggest winners are set to be modern and technical universities. Policymakers may yet adjust QR methodologies meaning extrapolations are, at best, loose indicative projections. In England, QR was directed by a ratio of 4:1 of research judged at the highest two (4* and 3*) levels. However, with the big increase in submissions at the highest level, the government may change its funding formulas.

Universities in the Golden Triangle account for a slightly smaller share (-2.4%) of 4* and 3* submissions, suggesting that they – and in particular Cambridge, Oxford, UCL and Imperial – may attract less QR funding over the next seven years. Those universities in the MillionPlus, GuildHE and University Alliance mission groups – which all collectively account for a greater share of 4* and 3* level submissions, could expect to gain funding.

Facts and figures:

  • The REF panels received 1,878 submissions, including 185,594 research outputs, 6,781 impact case studies and 76,132 staff.
  • 34 expert sub-panels reviewed the submissions
  • 900 panellists were involved in the assessments


Since the last REF, rule changes mean universities can present more research outputs. Universities are also required to include all staff with “significant” responsibility for research in their submissions, with figure rising from around 52,000 to over 76,000 staff. “These changes mean the exercise provides a different national picture of research quality, therefore, to its predecessor,” a spokesperson for REF said, “limiting the extent to which meaningful comparisons can be drawn across the outcomes of the two exercises – for outputs in particular.”

Addressing a REF press conference, David Sweeney, executive chair of Research England, said the 2021 framework had “succeeded in capturing a broader range of research that we didn’t capture before”, rejecting the idea the framework had been overgenerous in assessing more submissions as 4*. He said the results had captured “a different picture…a better picture” of quality research across the UK, showing world-leading research is widely undertaken outside of London and the southeast of England.

He rejected any comparison with results from 2014, particularly regarding the comparative difference between institutional and regional scores, adding: “The results show a strong story for some parts of the country, but not a weaker story for others.”

Northumbria University, for example, grew its submissions graded 4* and 3* the most of any English institution.

Sweeney added that it was “possible” QR funding formulas may change following the 2021 REF scores, “but we cannot really comment at this stage”. Big changes in England are unlikely, as that would require consultation, but some “some changes” should be expected, Sweeney clarified. QR funding allocations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are devolved matters.

What is the reaction?

University Alliance said its members were “taking great strides forwards” with world-leading research output. UA chair Prof Debra Humphris, the vice-chancellor of the University of Brighton, said the results show the group’s 14 members “have an important role to play in delivering on the UK’s ambitions as a science and research superpower”.

Rachel Hewitt, chief executive of MillionPlus, said: “It is clear that changes to the exercise since the last REF in 2014 have helped to better identify and recognise excellence wherever it is found.” Added Hewitt: “It is our hope now that this positive change will also be reflected in a more equitable distribution of funding for UK research.”

London Higher said its members account for 11 of the top 25 performing overall ‘units of assessment’ by the percentage of 4* submissions and were “the driving force behind UK science”. Imperial College London has the highest proportion of world-leading research of any UK university.

Prof John Strachan, pro-vice-chancellor of Research and Enterprise at Bath Spa University and the director of GuildHE Research, said the results show “the strong contribution of small and specialist providers”. It is “vital that the sector embraces the diversity of approaches to research that is now represented by the REF results,” he added.

Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said: “Quality-related ‘QR’ funding allocated through the REF allows universities to pursue high-risk, high-reward ideas that need long term investment or may be seen as too risky for external funders… Yet its value has declined in real terms over the past decade (-14%).

“The government has recognised the value of science to our country by increasing its R&D budget. As we face up to long term challenges like net-zero, now is the time to follow that through and boost long term, low-bureaucracy investments like QR that will deliver more world-class research and power future economic growth.”

Prof Steve West CBE, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of UWE Bristol, said, “building on [these research achievements] requires political focus and support. It is imperative that the dark clouds of uncertainty hanging over our research communities are lifted by urgently confirming the UK’s association to Horizon Europe, the EU’s world-leading research and innovation programme, to provide a stable funding environment”.

University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said: “The UK is home to outstanding researchers and produces world-leading research, year in, year out. But the Research Excellence Framework remains a flawed, bureaucratic nightmare and emblematic of a research culture obsessed with arbitrarily designating institutions or departments as ‘winners’ or ‘losers’. It is a drain on the time and resources of university staff, and funding often entrenches structural inequalities.’

Read more: Review of future UK research assessment to be chaired by international panel of experts

Academics think REF encourages game-playing, national survey suggests

REF panels more diverse but progress uneven

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