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Next REF delayed to end of 2029

Research Excellence Framework team confirms a number of proposed reforms are to be implemented

The next Research Excellence Framework has been pushed back from 2028 to 2029, it has been announced.

In a “next steps” document published on 7 December, the REF team said there is to be a delay to the exercise to resolve several issues, including the implementation of plans to fully break the link between individual staff and institutional submissions.

Other challenges that require more time to resolve include the preparations for using Higher Education Statistics Agency data to determine REF volume measures and the reworking of institutional codes of practice.

The results will now be published in December 2029, with an updated timeline to be published “as soon as possible”, the REF team said.

REF is a massive assessment system, which in large part determines the amount of research funding UK universities receive from government. It is run by the four UK higher education funding bodies: Research England, the Scottish Funding Council, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, and the Department for Economy Northern Ireland.

The last one was REF2021, which was delayed to 2022 because of the pandemic.

Initial decisions

The news follows the conclusion in October of a consultation on initial decisions relating to the next REF. Changes for 2029 include the further decoupling of individual staff from research outputs and a reduction in the number of impact case studies institutions need to submit.

“Moves to break the link between individual staff members and unit submissions were welcomed by the community and this principle will be maintained,” the REF team said in the 7 December document, but added that “further work will be undertaken” to ensure the change does not disincentivise inclusivity because of “the overrepresentation of outputs by a small number of researchers”.

“We want to avoid the reintroduction of staff census lists or staff circumstance exercises for institutions, but institutions may be asked to provide justification if their submissions do not appropriately represent their research community,” the document states.

It adds that further work is also needed to develop guidance on how institutions can provide evidence of their links to research outputs and confirms that outputs sole-authored by postgraduate research students—including PhD theses—will not be eligible for REF submission, nor will those produced by individuals employed on contracts with no research-related expectations.

Meanwhile, the minimum number of Impact Case Studies that an institution can submit per disciplinary submission will be reduced to one, and the removal of the 2-star quality threshold has also been confirmed.

Collaborative approach

“The Research Excellence Framework and its precursors have been designed by the four UK higher education funding bodies in collaboration with the community,” the document concludes. “This REF will be no different.

“The consultation on the initial decisions…probed the community’s thinking on most of the major decisions. The quality and volume of input received was high, and together, the four UK funding bodies have been carefully considering the community’s feedback; working to balance the principles agreed that will underpin this exercise with the burden of the changes that will be required to meet those.”

The REF team has yet to respond to a consultation on plans to introduce a new people, culture and environment section, which only concluded this month.

However, it did state that it was “considering options for testing and piloting the expanded element”, with further details expected in January 2024. 

“When the work developing people, culture and environment is more advanced, the funding bodies will review the proposed weighting [of the culture section] of 25 per cent, based on the evidence accumulated,” the document confirms. “We also expect to launch a consultation on REF open access requirements during January, and will begin recruiting panels and advisory groups in the early spring.”

Further decisions relating to the next REF will be published “in Spring”, providing “more detail on points of policy for the forthcoming REF cycle”, the REF team adds.

“This will include further details on the information required to supplement submission of outputs and impact case studies. Following the analysis of the open access consultation, we will also confirm policy in that area.”