An Introduction to REF 2014

(These notes are intended as a brief overview of the REF procedure, for those who are not directly involved in the process themselves, but who are interested in finding out more.)

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the latest name for the UK-wide assessment of research activities in universities which happens roughly every 5 years or so (the last version, the Research Assessment Exercise, happened in 2008). In forming their their quality judgements, a panel of experts drawn from the disciplines of art and design will assess three distinct elements of each institution's submission: outputs, impact, and research environment. Research outputs themselves are to be assessed in terms of their 'originality, significance and rigour', with reference to international research quality standards.

We in the disciplines of art and design have a particular challenge, since our research outputs take on a variety of complicated forms – exhibitions, performances, multimedia events, curating activities, as well as standard academic outputs such as books, chapters and journal articles. For this reason, we are allowed to submit a 300 word explanation alongside each piece of actual research work. An explanation is intended to clarify a research question, which the work addresses in some way, as well as provide evidence of the research's impact, economic and social.

Most departments of art and design in the UK higher education sector will be submitting, since the REF is an important source of income: outputs are graded on a scale of 1 to 4, those rated at 4 gaining more income than those at 1. (It's far more complicated than that, but those who are interested can see the details of the process on the REF website.)

The process of selecting research-active staff outputs is a delicate one, with staff members first submitting their outputs for internal scrutiny, and then an external scrutiny before submitting to the REF itself by the end of November 2013. Naturally the process of selection needs to be completely fair and transparent, and all institutions have a code of practice to ensure fairness, together with an appeals process for those not included. 

With only six months to the deadline, most departments of art will be putting the final touches on their submissions, and then it's the long wait, until December2014, when the results are made public.


An exceptionally time-consuming exercise – especially for those charged with overseeing their institution's submission: is it worth it? The fact is that no art school can afford not to play the game, since reputation, as well as funding is at stake. Prospective students will consider an art department's research profile – who teaches there, how high they are rated on the national scale – so admission numbers are also dependant on the results of this REF 2014.