Inside Track | Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 results

Finding time to pause and celebrate achievement is crucial. Stepping back, we can see the bigger picture, look afresh at the fruits of our hard work and recognise how far we have come.

Inside Track: Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 results. May 2022

This week is one such moment. The results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 have been published and we are delighted to report that they reflect our position as one of the UK’s leading universities for the quality and impact of our research – research which is helping reduce inequalities and change the world. 

The results show that more than 90% of our University’s research has an overall quality rating of “world leading” or “internationally excellent”. 

The REF is a national exercise through which university research outputs are assessed through a peer review process. This is a logistical exercise on a vast scale, which involves an assessment of the quality of research outputs (including publications, performances and exhibitions), the impact of this research beyond the realms of academia, and of the environment that enables the research to take place.

For our community of talented researchers, the publication of the REF results has been a source of excitement – and nervousness – for months (if not years). But the wait is over. The results show that the quality of our University’s research is above the higher education sector average.

Our REF submission spanned research in the arts and humanities; social sciences; business; the physical, biological and environmental sciences; engineering; medicine and health.  

Research was broken down into 34 disciplinary units, known as Units of Assessment. We submitted more than 120 unique Leeds case studies as part of 28 returns to 27 of the Units of Assessment. The results show that the University’s overall profile for 16 of the Units of Assessment was over 90% “world leading” or “internationally excellent”.

Given its scale, it will take time to properly analyse the results, to identify where we have excelled and better understand opportunities for improvement.  

Collaboration at the heart of the REF

What is clear is that our successes reflect the tireless contribution of countless academic and professional services colleagues across the University over a number of years. On behalf of the entire University community, we want to thank everyone who collaborated to ensure that our REF submission showed Leeds in its true light – as a hub of creativity, expertise and acuity in research that has a telling impact on the world around us. 

Producing the world-class research for which Leeds is reknowned is a true team sport – researchers, professional services staff and Unit of Assessment leads have all played their part, and all deserve our thanks. 

Essentially, the REF also reflects the positive and inclusive research culture that we are focused on building at Leeds. 

The value of the REF

The REF has is strengths and weaknesses. It is a lengthy exercise, which consumes vast amounts of time and energy. While we welcome the external validation of the quality and impact of our research, the University chooses ultimately to measure the impact of our research – locally, nationally and internationally – by how well it supports our strategic objectives to drive down inequalities and build a fairer future for all. 

But as the primary method of assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions, the significance of the REF is undeniable. It is an important barometer of research quality and informs the allocation of quality research-related funding. It contributes to the accountability for public funding and demonstrates the benefits of public investment in research and impact.

We should not measure our REF success by comparing ourselves to our peer universities. Better that we celebrate our achievements in and of themselves, and most importantly for the impact they will have on some of the vulnerable people and communities in our society and on our planet. This is more important than focusing on our place in a league table, and reflects our strategic move away from competing against other universities towards a more collegial system of cooperation. 

This approach is essential because it speaks to the bigger picture – which is that universities should be collaborating more closely to harness their research strengths to tackle the huge global challenges that we face. The United Nations (UN) has identified 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – which includes zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, and gender equality. Our energies should be expended on breaking down artificial barriers between institutions and across academic disciplines to make progress against the SDGs, not focusing on how we rank in a table. 

Celebrating achievements

Above all, the REF reminds us of the talents of our community. As part of our Fairer future for all initiative, we promised to do more to recognise and celebrate the achievements of our staff.

This month, we announced details of two exciting new awards schemes, celebrating the values at the heart of our strategy’s three key themes – culture, community and impact. The Research Culture Awards and the Engaged for Impact Awards will recognise and celebrate all that our colleagues have achieved and the efforts to make Leeds an inclusive, collaborative and supportive community.

This week, it’s time to pause and celebrate our REF successes – because impact is our most important product. Not money or profit, but making a positive difference in the world through transformative research. So, once again, thank you to everyone who has contributed to these (fantastic) results.

Vice-Chancellor, Professor Simone Buitendijk and Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, Professor Nick Plant

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