UK universities often tout their performance in the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the most recent of which was conducted in 2014. It’s seen as another league table where universities are ranked according to the quality of their research, as opposed to other indicators like teaching, employer reputation, faculty/student ratio, etc. Students shopping for which institution to apply to sometimes rely on this metric as a measure of quality research.
The process of expert review under the REF assesses three distinct elements: quality of outputs (eg publications, performances and exhibitions), impact beyond academia, and the environment that supports research. Submissions are then awarded either a one-star, two-star, three-star or four-star ranking.
Four UK higher education funding bodies – Research England, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), and the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland (DfE) – undertake this assessment to provide accountability for public investment in research, establish reputational yardsticks and inform the selective allocation of funding for research.
Like all rankings, the REF has its share of shortcomings. The latest criticism comes from an op-ed in The Guardian which details why it’s a damaging exercise for the humanities.