The good, the bad and the way forward: how UK universities should respond to REF results

How should UK universities respond if their REF results are good, bad or offer a mixed picture? New pro vice-chancellor for research Heather Widdows shares her advice

Heather Widdows's avatar
University of Birmingham
11 May 2022
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Don’t let the REF tail wag the academic dog

3 minute read
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As a pro vice-chancellor of research who is relatively new to the post, preparing for the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) results is a mixed bag.

On the one hand, if it goes well it provides a really strong foundation and dramatically opens up what I can do going forward. REF not only matters for league tables, but for how a university feels, the spring in the step of the academics, the confidence about pushing the boundaries of research, striving to do better, being viewed among the best global institutions.

On the other hand, if it goes badly it will be an uphill climb to reinvigorate researchers, support and enable them, recognising the challenges many have faced over the past few years. It will also – and as a pro vice-chancellor of research this can’t be ignored – pull down the rankings, with the implications that has for attracting the best staff and students, and for winning our share of research income. While it strictly wasn’t on my watch, it will profoundly shape what I can do.

If REF results are excellent...

If the REF results are fabulous, institutions need to capitalise on these. Some benefits will be automatic, because the REF feeds directly into national league tables and indirectly – through quality publications and reputation – into international league tables. Other benefits will need a longer view to be fully realised, requiring strategy and planning to build on areas of strength and to continue to deliver world-class research. There will also be ongoing pressure, as the funding climate changes, to show why research matters.

If REF results are disappointing...

If the REF results are disappointing, then institutions have to respond by owning where they are and examining how they can grow going forward. Unlike other metrics, REF stays in place for a long time – several years – which matters to reputation, especially in the UK, and to Research England’s quality-related funding. But it is only one source of data, and between now and the next REF, disappointed institutions need to build research excellence using annual metrics of publication data and extending and measuring impact, to be sure that their results at the next REF (if there is one) will not be disappointing.

A focus on collective efforts to support quality research

Crucially though, what really matters is not measurement but doing research that makes a difference and, as a sector, UK higher education produces research of extraordinary quality.

The likelihood for most institutions is that some research areas will have done well – better than they expect and be buoyed up – while others will be disappointed. The most important thing as pro vice-chancellor of research is to manage the process and make sure the university remembers that it is a community of creative researchers who collectively deliver research and education.

We need to play as a team, behave as colleagues, foster a culture of support not blame, and celebrate success without triumphalism. And, once the dust has settled, take a very honest look at the results to learn for the future. These are the kinds of questions I will be asking:

  • How do our predicted grades compare with our actual grades? As this tells me something about how well our academics understand quality in their own disciplines.
  • How do the REF data compare with other data? Are we strong in REF in the same areas where we are strong in grant income and for teaching?
  • How does our internal view of where our strengths lie fit with what the REF, as an external measure of quality, tells us?
  • Where is our environment and culture strong? How can we share best practice?
  • Where did our impact do well? How can we build real impact that transforms the cultural, social and economic world for the better? How can we share these stories more effectively; stories that show why universities really matter and not just for REF purposes?

I will check in with my fellow pro vice-chancellors for research because REF is a driver of quality and the UK punches above its weight in research. While we need to think about how our individual institutions have done, we should also work together as a sector for better results. Too often universities are internally focused, thinking only about our institutions and forgetting the world outside. Higher education is not separate from the rest of society, and we need to communicate what we do, as a sector, and why it matters to the world. To do this well, universities need to focus on how to cooperate better to deliver more, rather than focusing on how we perform against each other.

Heather Widdows is pro vice-chancellor for research and knowledge exchange at the University of Birmingham. 

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