A reflection on the Research Excellence Framework 2014

TStephenFrosh_2014his post was contributed by Professor Stephen Frosh, Birkbeck’s Pro-Vice-Master for Research. In December 2014 the UK higher education funding bodies published the results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a peer review process which evaluates the quality of research in the UK’s universities.  Funding decisions based on the REF results will be announced this spring.

The results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) were published in December 2014 and have been widely reported. While the official results of this six-yearly audit of university research take the form of institutional ‘profiles’ made up of outputs, impact, environment and an overarching narrative, there has also been strong  interest in where each institution sits in the various informal league tables that have followed.

Birkbeck did well in the REF. In keeping with the rest of the sector, our results improved significantly since the last such research assessment in 2008, when 56% of our research was rated as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’, the top two categories. This time, 73% of our research was judged in those categories. Unlike many universities, our performance was not inflated by a strategic decision to include only our most research-active academics in the assessment. Birkbeck submitted 83% of eligible staff to the 2014 REF, well above the national average. This led to the College’s strong performance in league tables which take into account the percentage of staff, rather than just the overall grade point average (GPA) of research, submitted. Birkbeck achieved a ranking of 30th in the UK for its research by the Times Higher Education – placing the College above Russell Group institutions such as Cardiff, Leeds, Liverpool, Queen Mary, Sheffield and York.

Of the 14 subject areas that Birkbeck submitted, half were rated in the top 20 nationally. Our science submissions performed exceptionally well, with Psychological Sciences rated 5th in the UK and the College’s two joint submissions with UCL – Earth Systems & Environmental Sciences, and Biological Sciences – rated 6th and 11th respectively.  Our outstanding subjects in the Times Higher Education’s ‘research-intensity’ league tables  include Law, ranked 6th overall (putting it among the top 10 law schools alongside the LSE, UCL, Oxford and Cambridge) and History, ranked 7th.

Similarly, the College performed strongly in league tables based on the percentage of research judged to be ‘world-leading’, indicating the very high quality of much of our research. I am also particularly pleased that – in addition to the outstanding performance of some of our top disciplines – we can celebrate the good performance in the REF of new areas such as Sociology and our reconfigured Modern Languages group, reflecting the College’s ability to build new research areas over time.

The 2014 REF threw up new challenges for the sector. For the first time, it required universities to demonstrate the impact of their research beyond academia. The College responded very well to this challenge, with good ratings in most areas and outstanding results in three subject areas – History; Art and Design; and Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience – where 100% of Birkbeck’s submissions were rated in the top two categories for impact. The broad scope of our research and its impact are showcased on the College research webpages under six themes: arts, history and culture; conservation and heritage; learning, education and development; politics, society and the law; science and biomedicine; and work and the economy. This demonstrates how closely Birkbeck’s research relates to many aspects of our everyday lives – whether influencing policy-makers in their thinking about early years education; working with major companies to educate parents about their child’s development; or trialling new drugs for the treatment of cancer.

The results of the REF are important for many reasons, including the credibility of our claim to be research-intensive, our reputation with the public and our strong standing within specific disciplines. Importantly, from a financial perspective, the likelihood remains that HEFCE research funding will be allocated according to a formula based on proportion of 4* and 3* overall outcomes multiplied by number of staff submitted, with 4* more heavily weighted.  What this means for Birkbeck will be clearer when funding decisions based on the REF results are announced in spring 2015. At the moment, we expect to earn about the same amount College-wide (though with a somewhat different distribution between disciplines within the College) from the REF as we have done from the RAE (well over £6m in 2014-15) – but we shall have to see whether the funding formula changes, and also whether the UK’s spending on research and development as a proportion of GDP, which is very low by international standards, continues to fall. Birkbeck’s results also show the enormous amount of hard work that has gone on in recent years by our academics. At a time of turmoil in the higher education system, they have continued to produce top-quality research.

The REF was a stressful experience for many people in the College and I am especially grateful to them for the work they put into Birkbeck’s submission. As might be imagined, we have been poring over the results and thinking about how to build on them for the future. We have a new Research Strategy that aims at facilitating the creativity of our research community. We are looking closely at issues of research leadership and we are reviewing the policies and provision we have in relation to postgraduate research students. There is, as ever, plenty to do, but the REF has confirmed our own self-perception as a highly active research-based institution of genuinely international standing.

Listen to a podcast with Professor Frosh about the REF 2014 results.

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