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REF 2021 demonstrated the power of arts and humanities research

The conversation about research often focuses on the sciences. For James Coe, REF 2021 makes a powerful case for the quality and value of research in the arts and humanities
This article is more than 1 year old

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

Everyone who has made the REF exercise possible, particularly in the context of Covid-19, deserves praise

The REF results are not only a reflection of the absolute research strength of our universities but a reflection of years of work of university staff up and down the country who have been preparing to submit, the panellists who have sifted through thousands of submissions, and the four UK higher education funding bodies who have coordinated the whole thing.

After all, as David Sweeney (Executive Chair of Research England) has said, the REF is a key way in which the university sector justifies public funding for its work.


The REF 2021 results suggest that the sector is indeed justifying the public investment made into research. At a time where the sector cannot escape headlines on culture, quality or online teaching, to name just a few topics this week, having over 80 per cent of all research outputs judged to be world leading (3*) or internationally excellent (4*), serves as a timely reminder of just how central universities are to any claim the UK may make on being a global superpower. The way in which our research system, for all of its faults, enables the assiduous use of public resources to be turned into work which continually changes the world should never be underestimated or undervalued.

We should also be mindful that value is a contested notion as much in research as it is elsewhere in the higher education ecosystem. If you’ve read the Levelling Up White Paper, R&D Roadmap, the plethora of budget documents, or watched speeches from politicians on research, you might be forgiven for thinking that research and innovation is solely about science, technology, engineering, and maths. There is no getting away from the fact that STEM is a central pillar of our shared economic futures but we should not forget that arts and humanities are a central part of both our research landscape and society more broadly.

Across main panel D (responsible for arts and humanities) there is a great amount of research excellence. To pick a geographical spread 79 per cent of the University of Newcastle’s outputs in English Language and Literature were 4*; 73 per cent of Royal Holloway’s Music, Drama, Dance, Performing Arts, Film and Screen Studies outputs were 4*; and Cardiff University returned 71 per cent 4* outputs for Communication, Cultural and Media Studies, Library and Information Management. Across the sector we are blessed with truly world leading research across these fields. As we think what comes after REF we should be optimistic about the contributions of arts and humanities and keep David Sweeney’s words on justifying public funding in mind.

Arts and humanities matter

To declare a conflict of interest I am an English Literature graduate. Regardless of how else we measure their impact I think arts and humanities are valuable for their own sake in the way they enrich our lives. It’s the thing which tears us away from that which is only economically necessary. A brief fillip in the interregnums between being born, going to work, retirement, and death. It’s often the centre of our communities, the thing that brings us together, the hobbies which give us purpose. Spending public funding on research which makes life worth living will never be a waste of money.

There is a narrower view of the world that research ultimately divines its value from its economic utility. It just isn’t possible to measure every programme against one another on a pounds in and pounds out basis. Innovation is messy and unpredictable, the economy and labour market are more unpredictable still, and ascertaining what might create future economic value for people and our places is just incredibly difficult. Instead, we should look at arts and humanities as a broad base of research excellence, which feeds into teaching, which then furthers our collective understanding of the world. Just because its pursuit is not wholly economic in its output does not mean it does not have economic merit.

Another view could be to look more closely at the social impact of arts and humanities. The REF exercise looks at impact as “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia”. Effectively, “does the research carried out in universities do good in the world?”

As we wait for the 2021 case studies to be published in July, we can still see from the breadth of previous case studies a programme cluster which is changing public policy around alcohol consumption; digitising culture to bring it to global audiences; developing policy to protect journalists in conflict; improving public teaching of mathematics; bolstering literacy in the prison system; and thousands of other impacts in between. Arts and humanities make an enormous impact on our lives and we should not shy away from the fact that impact is necessarily broad.

It is simply not the case that arts and humanities has no practical application. However, that application is different. The strength of the UK research system is both its depth and its breadth.

As pointed out elsewhere on Wonkhe nearly every provider had some research that could be considered world leading. Arts and humanities are part of that story and an area of research in which the UK can be considered world-leading. It neither bolsters other areas nor somehow legitimises the pursuit of this work by comparing it against other programmes. Neither can its impact be contained in economic and social impact alone. The arts and humanities are an expression of soft power in Global Britain; a key pillar of research strength; and if we want levelling up to be about the quality of life beyond economic prosperity, a key part of the UK’s future.

One response to “REF 2021 demonstrated the power of arts and humanities research

  1. “As pointed out elsewhere on Wonkhe nearly every provider had some research that could be considered world leading. Arts and humanities are part of that story”

    Sadly that is unlikely to be the case for much longer – As an example Wolverhampton has just pulled it’s post-grad arts courses for “review”.

    I am sure A&H will survive at most of the RG due to concentration of student numbers but it’s clear that for a range of reasons (MERs, Proceed, B4, govt obsession with STEM) that many Post-92s will shift out of this area in the next couple of years and bet on a smaller number of bigger courses in what I’ll broadly call “employability” areas.

    As boards ends in next few weeks – look out for the bloodbath.

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