Publication of Stern Review of University Research Funding

Thirty years ago, the UK was the first country to undertake an assessment of the quality of research undertaken in universities and remains a leader in the field. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is run every five to six years and requires UK universities that conduct research to submit their top research papers, demonstrating the impact of their work, for assessment. The results of the REF are then used to inform the allocation of government funding to universities for research.

President of the British Academy, Lord Nicholas Stern was commissioned by the Minister of Universities and Science, Jo Johnson in November 2015 to carry out an independent review of the REF intended to ensure future university research funding is allocated more efficiently, offers greater rewards for excellent research and reduces the administrative burden on institutions. Lord Stern was supported by a high-level steering group of academic experts, and an advisory group drawn from across the HE sector and including representatives from the devolved administrations. A call for evidence drew over 300 responses from across the sector.

This report sets out the findings of Lord Stern’s review and presents the following:

  • The purpose and benefits of the REF.
  • The problems and issues that arise from the current system.
  • Principles and high-level recommendations for shaping future exercises.
  • A vision for the future of the REF within the proposed UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) organisation; and a programme for implementation of Lord Stern’s recommendations, which are designed to tackle important distortions and to deal with some of the cost implications.

Recommendations set out in the report include the following:

  • Counting all research active staff in the REF but varying the number of pieces they might submit. Higher education (HE) institutions currently select the staff that will be included and this innovation will ease pressure and encourage academics to research new areas or on a longer time-scale.
  • Widening and deepening the notion of research “impact” to include influence on public engagement, culture and on teaching, avoiding distortions of research choices and careers.
  • Introducing a new institutional level assessment to foster greater cohesiveness between academics and reward collaboration on interdisciplinary activities.

The report concludes the Research Excellence Framework and the Research Assessment Exercises that preceded it have been a success, with the UK at the forefront of world research with the most productive science base in the G7, ranking first amongst comparable major research nations for Field Weighted Citations Impact. However it acknowledges that quality alone is not enough. Intellectual enquiry is global and competition is increasing so that the UK’s outstanding leadership requires constant investment as key competitors are increasing theirs. Lord Stern argues that further increasing both the quality and investment of the UK’s research must be central in the coming competitive and turbulent years.

Responding to the review, Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson said:

“Lord Stern recognises the advantage that our world class research base brings to the UK and the key role our universities play in delivering high-quality teaching, driving productivity and economic growth.

“I would like to thank Lord Stern and his steering group for their considered insights and recommendations which clearly set out how we can build on the strengths of previous assessments and reduce the burdens on academics to ensure we retain our global leadership in ground-breaking research.”

As the REF is a UK-wide process, the Government will work with the devolved administrations and higher education funding bodies to consider the detail of Lord Stern’s recommendations before formally responding. The Government will publish a full consultation on the next REF later this year.

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