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A Prospective PhD Student's Guide to the Research Excellence Framework

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a nationwide assessment of the research being conducted at UK universities. It takes place every six years and is undertaken by the UK’s four higher education funding bodies.

The results of the most recent REF assessment, which took place in 2021, have just been released – which is why you may have heard increasing chatter about it in the past few weeks!

But what exactly is the purpose of the REF? And why does it matter for prospective PhD students? We’ll answer these questions and more in this quick guide.

If you’re keen to delve into the data straight away, we’ve produced a handy breakdown of the REF 2021 results.

How does the Research Excellence Framework work?

The REF is carried out by four panels of experts, broken down into a series of sub-panels, each specialising in a specific discipline.

Universities are required to make an institutional submission to the REF, which has three elements:

  • A selection of publications exemplifying the university’s research output
  • Several case studies demonstrating the impact of this research
  • A written statement describing the university’s research environment

Submissions are broken down into 34 disciplinary units known as Units of Assessment (UoAs) – the equivalent of a subject area.

Each subject area is awarded a grade from 0 to 4 stars, where 4 stars is reserved for a ‘world-leading’ standard of research. A subject can be graded 0 stars or ‘Unclassified’ if research falls below nationally recognised standards.

These results are then combined to create a ‘quality profile’ for each university.

What is the Research Excellence Framework for?

Most obviously, REF provides an opportunity for universities to demonstrate the quality of their research. It also ensures that institutions are accountable for the public investment that supports them.

But universities have an even bigger incentive to earn a good score – results of the REF are used to inform the allocation of around £2 billion in funding each year. So, the better your institution performs, the more funding you can expect to come your way!

How come REF 2021 is being published in 2022?

It probably won’t have escaped your attention that we’re now five months into 2022, and REF 2021 has only just been published. There’s a good reason for this – at the beginning of 2020, there was a four-month pause in the exercise due to the coronavirus pandemic. This caused REF 2021’s publication date to be delayed somewhat.

How can prospective PhD students use the Research Excellence Framework?

If you’re looking apply for a PhD, the lack of postgraduate-specific rankings can be a frustrating barrier when it comes to choosing your ideal university. Though generic rankings can still provide valuable insight, the REF is arguably an even more valuable tool for would-be PhD researchers.

The REF is a deep dive into the factors that will be most relevant to PhD students – the quality of research conducted by a university, and the environment that facilitates this research.

If a university has a particularly high Output score, this likely means that your PhD will be supervised by leading academics with impressive publication portfolios. You’ll be joining an academic department with a proven track record of making original and significant contributions to your field.

An impressive Impact score demonstrates that a university’s research has been beneficial to society at large. You may well have the opportunity to participate in important (and CV-worthy!) projects in the wider community.

Universities who perform well in the Environment category will have effective training, support, and supervision in place for PhD candidates, as well as a sustainable funding model. They will have state-of-the-art facilities and have taken steps to promote diversity within their staff and student populations.

There’s a reason why the REF only rolls around once every six years – it is an extremely thorough process of expert review. You can be confident that scores of academics have spent countless hours rigorously assessing the merits of each university.


Now that you know how the REF works (and why you should care about it!), why not get stuck into the 2021 results? For more information on what the REF is and how to interpret it, check out our full guide and FAQ.




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Last Updated: 12 May 2022