Information for research staff on REF2021


The REF represents the single biggest routine assessment exercise that is conducted in and across UK Higher Education, and it is generally regarded by institutions as being the most important. Through the REF each institution’s claims to research-related excellence and reputation are rigorously assessed by teams of leading academic peer reviewers and external ‘users’ of the institutions’ research products.

content content What is REF? content

What is REF?

What is REF?

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions (HEIs). It replaces the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and will next report in December 2021. The REF is undertaken by the four UK higher education funding bodies and managed by the REF team based at HEFCE, overseen by the REF Steering Group consisting of representatives of the four funding bodies.

The REF aims to:

  • inform the selective allocation of research funding to HEIs
  • provide benchmarking information and establish reputational yardsticks
  • provide accountability for public investment in research and demonstrate its benefits.

REF2014 covered 6 years, with over two years of intensive preparations. It involved over 50,000 academics across the UK, and will be worth around £2Bn per annum (for at least 5 years from 2015/16) to the Higher Education Sector as a whole in direct funding council grants, awarded according to REF results.

The University of the Highlands and Islands participated in its 3rd such exercise and it is fair to say that we have come a long way since the first one. We started with a submission of 17.3 fte staff to 2 Units of Assessment (UoAs, i.e. discipline area aggregations) in the 2001 RAE, and in the REF2014 exercise we submitted 81 colleagues across 6 UoAs. For REF2021 it could be substantially more as the rules on who is submitted have changed.

Why do Universities Put Themselves through This? content

Why do Universities Put Themselves through This?

Why do Universities Put Themselves through This?

In short, a large part of our funding for research and our standing within the sector is determined by a great degree by our REF results.

Prestige and Public Relations

The outputs for the REF are publicly visible and every university wants to be seen as high quality. The REF gives a high profile measurement of one aspect of a university’s quality. This can be used to support student recruitment and staff recruitment. Have a look at university department websites and you will see statements such as “in 2008 60% of our staff were judged internationally leading in their field”. That is a very powerful statement with obvious benefits. REF outputs and ratings will be used in the league tables.


A proportion of university funding is determined from the quality indicators from the REF. In Scotland, this is known as the “Research Excellence Grant (REG)”, which now consists of two agreements known as an Outcome Agreement (core research funding) and University Innovation Funding (UIF), an additional fund rewarding collaborative working. Within and across UHI, the RAE related income since the last assessment has been approximately £10million.

Further information regarding this can be found on the REF website.

Staff eligibility process at UHI for REF2021 content

Staff eligibility process at UHI for REF2021

Staff eligibility process at UHI for REF2021

UHI REF2021 eligibility scoping process

For REF2021 staff selection is not based on eligible outputs as for REF2014. The key change this time around is that all staff who have 'significant responsibility for research' must all be included in the REF2021 submission, as long as they hold a minimum employment of 0.2 full time equivalent.

In recognition that some staff now brought within scope for submission to REF2021 may have limited responsibility for research (i.e. not a full time research-only contract or significant responsibility for other activities) the minimum number of outputs required per researcher has been reduced from four to one. Furthermore, the funding councils have required HEIs to work with their staff to identify who is in scope for submission among staff meeting the funding councils defined core eligibility criteria.

At UHI we have in place Unit of Assessment Leads who have been working with local research and department heads to compile a register of staff who might meet the REF eligibility criteria (as currently described by the joint UK funding bodies) and during Jan-Apr 2018 discussions were held amongst managers, staff and departments to establish the eligibility of those staff for REF2021.

During October and November 2019, UHI will be undertaking Part 2 of this Staff Eligibility Scoping exercise for REF2021. This exercise will involve the Vice Principal Research and Impact, Professor Neil Simco, convening a series of meetings around the UHI partnership with senior staff and aims to build on the outcomes of Part 1 of the Staff Eligibility Scoping Exercise and ensure that the university captures 100% of its eligible staff for submission to REF 2021.

As detailed in UHI’s Code of Practice for REF 2021, the purpose of these meetings is to sense check the potentially eligible cohort identified in Part 1 of the UHI Staff eligibility scoping exercise and update this ‘register’ of potentially eligible staff, based on any changes that may have occurred in the intervening period.

If you have any questions regarding the process please contact your head of department or head of research for clarification of the process at your locality.

If you are reading this and feel that you may be someone who is potentially eligible for submission to REF 2021, and yet have not been identified up to this point, please raise the matter in the first instance with your line manager.

We used PURE as our preparation tool during REF2014. It allowed us to move work around the partnerships and Unit of Assessment co-ordinators, to refine our selections and to ensure all information relating to the selections was included, once prepared it was then relatively straight forward to upload our submission to the REF system. We will again be using Pure for REF2021 preparations and submission. Download our guide on Proposing outputs for REF (pdf).

Therefore, it is very important to add all research outputs to your PURE profile as a matter of habit, especially with new regulations surrounding the requirement to make all outputs openly accessible a maximum of 3 months from publisher acceptance of articles. The REF selection and review process, and to some extent the annual research review, rely on key information from PURE. If you are producing research outputs and do not have a PURE account please request a PURE account via the online form.

UHI Code of Practice for REF content

UHI Code of Practice for REF

UHI Code of Practice for REF

All higher education institutions across the UK wishing to take part in REF 2021 are required to produce a code of practice which complies with the now finalised national framework and which sets out how the institution is planning to handle matters such as:

  • How it has identified staff who have significant responsibility for research and how it has identified staff who are independent researchers - both are defined quite specifically in the national guidance. This is especially important for UHI as, as you know, we don’t complete a HESA staff return.
  • How it will select outputs to be included in the REF submission.
  • How it will handle applications for special circumstances arising when a member of staff wishes for a range of situations, including maternity and illness, to be taken into account in determining the number of outputs required for a particular unit of assessment.

Institutions are required to submit a Code of Practice to the national REF team for formal scrutiny and approval. Codes of Practice have to be approved as a condition of an institution being eligible to take part in the REF.

Th UHI Code of Practice has been considered and endorsed by: the cross-partner REF Management Group, by HRPG, RKEC, Academic Council and Partnership Council, University Court Finance and General Purposes.

If you have any comment regarding our Code of Practice please contact Neil Simco, Vice-Principal Research and Impact, directly with your feedback:

Summary of REF2021 guidelines content

Summary of REF2021 guidelines

Summary of REF2021 guidelines

Guidelines for staff, outputs and impact partially announced 21/11/2017

The funding bodies have announced the main guidelines surrounding staff eligibility and output requirement. These guidelines are not yet complete and we have been told to expect the full staff eligibility guidelines late July 2018. The summary below sets out what we know so far:

Staff eligibility - Every academic with “significant responsibility for research” and who has a contracted FTE of at least 0.2 will be required to submit at least one output to the next REF. Significant responsibility for research is defined as: Staff for whom explicit time and resources are made available to engage actively in independent research, and that is an expectation of their job role. Research is defined as a process of investigation leading to new insights, effectively shared. Staff engaged exclusively in scholarship would not be considered to have a significant responsibility for research.

Exceptional circumstances - option for certain staff will be retained for REF2021.

ORCiD - This researcher identifier will not be mandatory for REF2021 (just strongly encouraged) but will be mandatory for REF2027.

Outputs - A minimum of one output is required for each member of staff; a maximum of five outputs may be attributed to individual staff members (including staff who have left, but they will have no minimum requirement). The average number of outputs required overall, per staff FTE, within each UoA submitted will be 2.5. For REF2021 we are required to report on outputs with a publishing, or early online, date between 1/1/2014 and 31/12/2020.

Portability of outputs - A transitional approach in REF2021 in prep for the non-portability of outputs in REF 2027, whereby outputs in REF2021 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.

Deposit of outputs - Outputs are required to be deposited in an open research repository (for UHI staff this means pure) as soon as possible after the date of acceptance by the publisher, and no later than three months after this date. Any deposit beyond the the 3 month timescale is not elilgible for REF. However, With the publication of the REF2021 Decisions on staff and outputs, we now have confirmation that the policy will require outputs to be deposited no later than 3 months after the date of acceptance from 1 April 2018. Outputs accepted between 1 April 2016 and 31 March 2018 (inclusive) require outputs to be deposited no later than 3 months after the date of publication.

Submission day - Deadline for all submissions to be finalised is 27/11/2020.

REF2021 news content

REF2021 news

REF2021 news

The current review period for research outputs began 1 January 2014 and information relating to REF2021 will be posted here as it is announced by the funding bodies, most recent news at the top.....

REF FAQ's now live on the REF website - 04/12/2017

As happened during the last REF, the FAQ's were added to throughout the process so if you need to know about REF bookmark the REF FAQ page

Guidelines for staff, outputs and impact announced - 21/11/2017

The funding bodies have announced the main guidelines surrounding staff eligibility and output requirement, see the summary below with the full 19 page document available as a pdf - REF Decisions on staff and outputs.pdf. They have advised there will be a further announcement late July 2018 giving more detail on the below requirements.

Staff eligibility; summary details on the above tab 'REF eligibility guidelines'

Initial decisions for REF2021 published by HEFCE - 1/9/2017 HEFCE published a set of initial guidelines for the current REF period, links below:

Initial decisions circular and summary

Initial decisions report and supporting documents

Summary of the 388 consultation responses

However, HEFCE are still to make final decisions on a number of key points; criteria for staff submission, portability of outputs, institution elligibility for inclusion in the REF. Decisions on these key questions have been delayed until 'the autumn' following additional consultation.

Proposing your outputs for REF2021 - Our whole REF process is being managed using PURE. This means your outputs and your personal details must be up-to-date within PURE. You need to propose your best outputs for review by the UHI REF review team. To do so, see this guide: Proposing your outputs.

Open access - 2/12/2015 All journal articles and conference proceedings with a publishing date after 1 April 2016 must comply with regulations on accessibility with appropriate re-use licences. All authors must be aware of the extra steps required; there is information in the PURE guide or a separate condensed specific document for REF - both available from the PURE INFO web page - or read the REF compliance webpage.

ALL staff to be submitted? - Sept 2015 - It should be noted that the recommendation of the recent Stern report included as its first point that ALL staff associated with research should be returned to REF2021.  This has not yet been confirmed by HEFCE as an adopted policy point but it is considered highly likely that it will be confirmed by mid 2017. The university REF review team will communicate to staff as soon as the UK government finalises the parameters for REF2021.

IMPACT and how it affects research reporting, measurement and outcomes is a hot topic at the moment. Everyone knows 'Impact' is going to be used as an increasingly important metric but it is not yet clear exactly what will be required either from funding bodies or for the next REF process. The document below is an amalgamation of a few documents released by RCUK on the subject and should give some indication of where we stand as of Aug 2014: RCUK Impact guidelines

All 6642 case studies submitted to REF2014 are now available to search, read and download from a tool provided by HEFCE.

Publishing dates - Sept 2015 - Every researcher needs to ensure they publish as much of our candidate REF outputs sooner rather than later. Depending upon when the next REF census date is (probably 30 November 2020), a 12 month review time, followed by a 24 month embargo period might mean that free green publishing would require the document to be submitted before the end of 2016. In some fields, a 12 month review period is optimistic, especially if revision is required followed be re-review! As a result, from 2016 we will need to progressively consider publishing through Gold Open access, the costs might become prohibitive and pose a real threat to our research development, but publishing early will ensure the gold route is not required.

Open access - May 2015 - Following an extensive consultation exercise, SFC and the other three UK funding bodies have published details of a new policy for open access relating to future research assessments after the current Research Excellence Framework (REF). The policy describes new eligibility requirements for outputs submitted to the post-2014 REF and can be viewed and downloaded from HEFCE’s website