This article is more than 1 year old

REF is expensive because it’s good value

A new report reveals the true costs of the Research Excellence Framework. At £471m James Coe, thinks it's a good investment
This article is more than 1 year old

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

A new report has told the sector something it has always known. Running REF is expensive.

At £471m, or around £67m a year over the seven year REF cycle, its annualised cost is greater than the annual income of the University of Chichester. The septennial fee is more than the total annual funding distributed by OfS for student access and success. If Research England, its counterparts in the nations, and UK universities wished to get into football they could buy a West Bromwich Albion sized club every year instead of running REF.

Bigger bolder REF

REF is not only expensive it is getting more expensive. REF 2021 cost around £3m for every HEI that submitted, up from £2m in 2014, and £1m in 2008. Costs per provider have increased by 66 per cent albeit there has been a 68 per cent increase in the number of staff submitted to the exercise.

REF is not getting more expensive because Research England is lining its pockets. REF is expensive because it is massive and getting bigger.

To assess submissions across 157 providers encompassing 76,000 researchers is always likely to accrue a significant administrative cost. A smaller REF would be a cheaper REF but there would be trade offs in the quality of the exercise. Although it is a lot of money, only 21 per cent of institutions believe it does not represent value for money.

Being expensive is different from being inefficient. REF 2021 cost £471m to distribute up to £15bn of QR funding between 2022/23 and 2029/30. REF 2021 has been widely praised as fair, thorough, and transparent, and spending 3-4 per cent of the total funding on administration is pretty lean. A small-scale study highlighted by Kings College London suggests up to 13 per cent of total award funds are usually spent on administration. This report places the cost of the research council’s own peer review process at around 12 per cent.

To put it another way, up to 97 per cent of funding is actually distributed as funding, there are charities and funders of all kinds that can only dream of this kind of frugality.

Impacts and efficiencies

The majority of costs associated with REF is the coordination and review of Unit of Assessment activity, management costs, and the preparation of impact statements and case studies. The cost is mostly staff time. While staff can only spend their time once the activities they are carrying out have obvious wider benefits.

The whole point is that REF is an incentive mechanism for staff to spend their time working on excellent research, the translation of research into impact, and the cultivation of good research environments. REF is an evaluation exercise but it is also a means to an end in making research better in a number of ways.

The report says there are around £100m of potential future savings through reducing data and reporting requirements. However, if the next iteration is done properly, it may well end up being an equally expensive exercise.

People, culture, and environment

The increasing weighting toward people, environment and culture in REF 2028 includes a clear expectation that providers will reflect on their own work in this area in a more significant way than they have to date. Although looking at and acting on data on environment, gender research gaps, promotions, who gets published, and any other indicators that will fit within people, environment, and culture, will be expensive, it will be worth it if it leads to positive changes to the research environment.

It should be an expensive undertaking because it would suggest that universities are doing this work properly. It would suggest that amidst all of the funding challenges this work remained a priority. And in the long-run it would suggest that universities are investing in the sustainability of their research. The thing with research environments and research culture is that properly built it can outlive the tenure of any number of staff members. It can be a really good long-term investment.

A more expensive REF is in part in the control of universities. If it is more expensive because more staff are reflecting more deeply on the environments and culture that are propagated within research then it will be worth every penny.

7 responses to “REF is expensive because it’s good value

  1. Unbelievable complacency. Reads like something written by a Soviet bureaucrat circa 1985.

    It’s time for the focus of industrial action over the next five years to move away from disrupting teaching, to instead launch a full boycott of REF, TEF, KEF and NSS. REF2028 will not take place! Universal Basic Research Income now!

  2. There is lots and lots of evidence that “more staff are reflecting more deeply on the environments and culture that are propagated within research” is not what REF engenders. Rather it engenders behaviour from local senior administrators that, as the authors of the Leiden manifesto wrote to the University of Liverpool in February 2021, constitutes “a major threat for recent initiatives on responsible research metrics”. Or what Jeremy Farrar, the former director of the Wellcome Trust referred to in 2019 when he spoke of “destructive hyper-competition, toxic power dynamics and poor leadership behaviour”.

    National administration of research funding, which is of course hugely important, should seek to be as transparent and open as possible with an absence of concentrations of power in local beaurocrats. Such concentrations can create culture that is poisonous for research and that is “almost clandestine. Involvement is highly confidential and limited to small, dedicated teams of senior academics and administrators, closed off from their wider academic communities.” (

    I dare say that description would resonate with anyone who read about the Soviet Union immediately before Glasnost.

  3. “the whole point is that REF is an incentive mechanism for staff to spend their time working on excellent research”… Sure, because if we didn’t have REF we’d just do mediocre research?

    1. Coming from a post-92 which I now left, REF has definitely increased the value of research there. Before REF, no one at the university gave a hoot about research and it was only seen as taking away time from teaching. With REF, there has definitely been an increase in how research and staff engaging in it are valued.

      1. Coming from a post-92 which I have now left, I saw a lot of energy which was once dedicated to teaching & learning diverted to research. The ‘esteem’ of the researching academic goes ever further to fuel the idea that investing energy in teaching and learning is a fool’s game. I don’t blame senior administrators for this – everyone is simply trying to access funding streams wherever they can to stay financially stable.

        My personal experience is that the amount of money that universities spend playing the REF game is sickening (every professorial role spent most of their time doing ‘REF activities’ rather than leading research), and could be put to much better use through directly funding research, teaching, or practice.

    2. Hiya, I don’t think that would be the case and I didn’t say that? Whether the incentive is right is different to whether that is the incentive that exists.

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