Thinking differently for REF 2021 by David Sweeney

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REF 2021 will require a change in mindset to understand the approach to submissions.

We know that many people are keen to understand more about the REF 2021 rules, and to begin planning and considering the ways they may best be implemented for their institution. There are several aspects of the high-level framework that continue from the previous exercise; but there are also key changes to the submission process that will need a bit of a mindset change to fully get to grips with.

Of course many people are asking questions about the new arrangements, and before developing detailed guidance we have set out responses to some of the frequently asked questions. We will continue to add to these over the coming months.

However, some of the commentary we have seen has raised concerns that some may not have fully understood the background to the new arrangements. I’d therefore like to set out some clarifications here, to help address any misunderstanding.

Submitting to REF 2021

Much of the discussion about ‘submitting staff’ in this commentary draws on an understanding of the submission approach in previous exercises, where staff in post were returned with a set number of their outputs. But that is a misleading way of considering submissions in REF 2021. In this exercise, the submission is a portfolio of work, carried out in the submitting unit during the assessment period. The volume measure is based on a census date, as last time, which will be 31 July 2020.

With the new rules on output portability (described in the staff and outputs decisions document) there may a significant element of the submission which relates to people who are not counted in the volume measure, since they are no longer working in the submitting institution. However, in no sense are those people being submitted. Their outputs were developed in the submitting institution and are therefore eligible. No negotiation should be required with individuals about this. Formalities such as inclusion in an appropriate repository are intended to facilitate submission, not be the cause of omission. The four funding bodies running the REF would, as always, be keen to support inclusion in the light of any administrative difficulties.


The rules regarding impact have also not changed in this sense. Impact wasn’t ‘portable’ in REF 2014 in the way that outputs were. In REF 2021, it remains the responsibility of the submitting institution to gather the evidence they wish to use to build impact case studies.

Who runs the REF?

Finally, looking beyond REF 2021 just to note that the REF is run not by HEFCE alone – nor, in the future, just by Research England – but by the four UK funding bodies together. These are:

  • HEFCE (Research England in the future)
  • the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales
  • the Scottish Funding Council
  • the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland.

Only one of the funding bodies, Research England, will be a constituent part of UKRI.

Any decisions on a future REF beyond 2021 will be the result of collective discussions between the four bodies, after normal consultation periods. But because we are often asked questions, and in view of the long publication cycles involved, we – the funding bodies – have felt it helpful to give an indication, where possible, of what some of the rules for the next REF may look like.

David Sweeney for HEFCE

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