Go back

REF 2028: Rebalancing the definition of excellence

A stronger focus on environment and culture will future-proof the research system, says Steven Hill

The publication of the initial decisions on the approach to the 2028 Research Excellence Framework has triggered a welcome debate on both the REF’s overall direction and its details. The direction of travel set out by the UK’s four higher education funding bodies represents two important shifts in our approach to the assessment. 

First, we are seeking to rebalance the exercise’s definition of research excellence, to focus more on the environment needed for all talented people to thrive and produce excellent and impactful contributions to knowledge. Given the link to future funding, the assessment needs to not just look at past success but also pay more attention to future capability.

The second shift is to focus the assessment more on institutions, making REF submissions less about individual researchers and their performance. Of the suite of changes we have proposed to do this, the removal of any minimum or maximum outputs per individual has probably received the most comment.

Creating advantages

Ending minimum and maximum requirements is a key aspect of breaking the links to individuals. Past REF submissions have been based on a list of people, but for REF 2028 the measure of staffing volume will be based on average levels over a period, and contributions to the submission will not be limited to the staff that make up the volume measure. Without a list of individuals as part of the submission, there is no set of people against which a minimum or maximum contribution can be judged.

Removing these restrictions brings many other advantages alongside a reduced focus on individuals. While the pressure to publish one output over a seven-year cycle is relatively mild, removing that pressure opens up space for long-term research that might not yield immediate results.

It also provides an environment where a diversity of career paths can thrive, enabling movement between academia and jobs in business, policy or the third sector, where the generation of research outputs may not be the norm. 

It frees people up to take time away for other roles, such as becoming a programme director in an organisation such as the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency, and it acknowledges that there may be periods where staff need to focus on activities within their institutions besides research. Enabling such flexibility should be celebrated as one of a healthy research system’s contributions to society.

Mitigating risks

Alongside these advantages comes a risk. The minimum requirement in REF 2021 encouraged institutions to support a broad range of researchers. And the maximum requirement prevented distorted submissions based only on the work of one or two prolific scholars. It has been argued that the changes will lead to a skewed allocation of resources, with universities supporting only a small proportion of researchers. 

We have heard these concerns, both since the decisions were published and in earlier discussions. They are important, but universities should be able to decide how they support research and researchers based on their strategic priorities and considerations, balancing short-term priorities and the maintenance of a healthy, sustainable and resilient research culture for the future. Should these decisions really be determined by externally imposed constraints?

An output pool skewed towards a few researchers or only part of a unit’s portfolio may not reflect a positive research culture. This will be considered in the new People, Culture and Environment element that will contribute 25 per cent of the overall REF profile. 

While the details remain to be finalised, this part of the assessment will include data on the distribution of outputs among authors, alongside a narrative element that explains how this reflects a healthy culture and the unit’s strategy. Support for early career researchers, and how this is reflected in the output pool, will also be assessed. 

Other information provided in the Contribution to Knowledge and Understanding element will also be relevant here. Looking at submissions as a whole, rather than as three separate elements, is a key shift for REF 2028, and we are keen to explore the linkages between different elements.

The decisions on REF 2028 aim to create important, positive shifts in the research system. To get the best out of our world-leading universities and their talented people, we need a dual focus: on outcomes and on the conditions to secure those outcomes for the future. We have designed an assessment to enable that. I look forward to our universities rising to this challenge, and the healthy, vibrant and impactful research system that will result. 

Steven Hill is director of research at Research England

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight