The Research Excellence Framework (REF)

About REF

The REF is the UK’s system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions. It first took place in 2014. The next exercise wil be conducted in 2021.

What is the purpose of the REF?

The funding bodies’ shared policy aim for research assessment is to secure the continuation of a world-class, dynamic and responsive research base across the full academic spectrum within UK higher education. We expect that this will be achieved through the threefold purpose of the REF:

  • To provide accountability for public investment in research and produce evidence of the benefits of this investment
  • To provide benchmarking information and establish reputational yardsticks, for use within the HE sector and for public information
  • To inform the selective allocation of funding for research. 

For more information about the REF, visit their website.

Preparations for REF 2021

(Note: In April 2020, Research England paused preparations for REF 2021 four months as a consequence of COVID-19. When the REF preparations resumed on 31 July 2020, new guidance was published describing revisions to the exercise made in view of the altered timetable and to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on universities’ submissions. Headline changes are in red below, with more detailed changes set out in the revised Code of Practice.)

The University’s preparations for REF 2021 are well underway, with the staff census date on 31 July 2020 and the deadline for submission on 31 March 2021. Between September and December 2020, our priorities are:

  • Completing the process to determine research independence of our research-only staff.
  • Finalising the individual circumstances process (see below for more details).
  • Completion of the review of eligible outputs, plus the selection and attribution of outputs in each Unit of Assessment.
  • Completion of an Equality Impact Assessment, reviewing and acting on our findings.
  • Completing the majority of our impact case studies.
  • Nearing completion of our environment statements at institutional and unit of assessment level.
  • A ‘deep-dive’ REF readiness review of each Unit of Assessment.

REF code of practice and invitation to declare individual circumstances


Our Code of Practice was accepted by Research England in Autumn 2019. Minor revisions were made in September 2020 as a consequence of COVID-19 delays to the REF process. These changes include the REF timeline with the final round of invitations to declare individual circumstances delayed until autumn 2020 (final deadline for declarations on 12 October 2020). This last round of invitations includes all Category A staff who have joined Aston between the end of February and 31 July 2020.

Information provided in a Declaration will be used by the Individual Circumstances Group to decide whether an adjustment should be made in expectations of an individual’s contribution to the unit output pool. These decisions will be made using the tariffs set out in Annex L of the REF Guidance on Submissions (see Annex 8 of the Aston REF Code of Practice). In addition to individual adjustments, where, the cumulative effect of circumstances disproportionately affects a Unit of Assessment’s potential output pool, universities may request a reduction (without penalty) in the total number of outputs required for a submission (Research England deadline 6 March 2020). 

Information about making a declaration of individual circumstances

Full information about individual circumstances, the declaration process and the appeals process are set out in the Aston REF Code of Practice (pages 18-23); the declaration form is provided above. Having considered this information, any individuals who would like to discuss their options for making a declaration, should contact in the first instance.

Importantly, the decision to declare individual circumstances rests with individual members of staff, with declarations being submitted using a Declaration of Individual Circumstances Form to In line with REF guidelines, we will not take into account any individual circumstances other than those that are declared voluntarily through this process. There is no requirement to declare individual circumstances should individuals not wish to do so, and there will be no detriment to staff if they wish to declare an individual circumstance. The Individual Circumstances Process will be operated consistently across the University; it is being managed through the central RKE office and the Individual Circumstances Group will assess and implement the Individual Circumstances Process. All information will be stored securely online and in hard copy.

Aston's performance in REF 2014
  • 78% of research outputs were evaluated as 'world leading' or 'internationally recognised', up from 45% in RAE 2008.
  • In Allied Health Professions, Dentistry, Nursing and Pharmacy, 94% of our research was judged to be World Leading or Internationally Excellent (4*/3*).
  • In three Units of Assessment (Computer Science and Informatics, Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Metallurgy and Materials, and Business and Management Studies) all of our impact case studies were rated 4* or 3*.
  • In the seven Units of Assessment where Aston submitted a return, 88.7% of Aston's research was found to have high levels of impact.
  • In three Units of Assessment (Allied Health Professions, Dentistry, Nursing and Pharmacy; Business and Management Studies Modern Languages and Linguistics) Aston was recognised as a great place for researchers, with the vitality and sustainability of our research environment rated 4* and 3*.

How we compare

  • In Area Studies we were rated in the top 3 in the UK – ahead of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
  • We were rated in the top 5 in Allied Health Professions, Dentistry, Nursing and Pharmacy, ahead of most of the Russell Group.
  • Aston Business School was rated 17th out of 101 institutions in terms of 3* and 4* impact.
  • We rank in the top 20 for 3* and 4* rated impact, ahead of Birmingham, Warwick and many of our competitors.