REF 2014: Quality of research improves, but Aber still down in overall rankings

IT HAS BEEN ongoing for over four years but midnight finally saw the results of the Research Excellence Framework. The REF is a £59 million exercise undertaken in order to assess the quality of research being conducted across 154 British universities.

Key Findings:

  • Grade Point Averages (GPA) went up significantly across the board.
  • However, Aberystwyth drops 13 places from 45th in 2008 to 58th in the rankings.REF2014_logo
  • Quality of research, especially its impact, in Aberystwyth improves.
  • However, individually, only 1 department went up in the subject rankings; 8 fell and
    3 stayed the same.
  • Vice-Chancellor: “I congratulate academic colleagues across the University on their excellent performance.”

Winners & Losers:

In terms of the department which performed best overall, the department of International Politics once again came out on top with 44% of its research being ranked as world-leading in terms of “originality, significance and rigour”. Both IBERS and Geography also got positive results, having 32% and 28% of 4* research respectively. World-leading research was identified in all 17 areas of assessment.

Comparison between the REF and the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 2008 is possible, although this is made difficult due to the assessment criteria having the new ‘impact’ element as well as some units of assessment being changed. Two examples of this can be seen below. The first chart shows how Interpol have increased their GPA and percentage of 4* research, but have also dropped in the national rankings. Similarly, the second chart shows Computer Science who have dropped in their GPA, percentage of 4* research and national ranking. The other 2008-2014 comparisons can be found here.

Politics & International Studies

Year GPA % of 4* Research Number of staff submitted National ranking
2008 2.95 40 33 3rd
2014 3.18 44 27 7th


Computer Science & Informatics

Year GPA % of 4* Research Number of staff submitted National ranking
2008 2.95 25 16 20th
2014 2.93 21 25 33rd


New to the REF is the ‘impact’ category. 20% of the research is now judged on the impact that it has on the world outside of academia. As the University were keen to point out in their press release, they performed “particularly strongly in terms of impact, with an overall Grade Point Average (GPA) of 3.1, meaning research conducted at the University has considerable reach and significance”. The aim of the new assessment area is to reward universities for interacting with wider society and business. However, some academics have argued that such a measure unfairly benefits science subjects which, on the whole, tend to have a greater impact on the wider society than arts and some social science subjects.

Individual categories:

REF is judged on different categories including ‘impact’, ‘environment’ and ‘output’. For a breakdown of how each department ranked in each of these categories then please click here.

Similarly, if you want to compare the data with other universities then please click here for the fantastic spreadsheet put together by Dr Chris Hanretty of UEA.

University Comment

Vice-Chancellor Professor April McMahon stated;

“We have invested heavily in our staff and research facilities, and it is terrific to learn that the University’s overall impact result is at a level considered to be internationally excellent. We have a clear strategy to build on for the next REF, and work to do in a number of areas, but also a range of outstanding performances. We also send our warmest congratulations to colleagues across the sector, and to Cardiff in particular with whom we work on a range of research projects, for their excellent performance as a Russell Group University.”


News Editor Jonny Haseldine comment:

Having set out the information, the key question that remains is this; Does the REF actually matter? The answer is yes and no. On the one hand, the exercise determines how much research funding each institution gets from the £2 billion that  is up for grabs each year. Funding, at the moment, is only allocated to 4* and 3* research and the largest chunks will be found in science and engineering departments at universities in London, Oxford and Cambridge.

On the flip side, read any university website or press release across the country tonight and all will have found a way to make the results look good for them in some way. It’s very much the case that there are multiple ways for the universities to interpret that data. From an Aberystwyth point of view, the impact factor is important, as shown in the Vice-Chancellor’s comments. Similarly, the improvement in the top end research is important although five units of assessment 4* percentage actually decreased compared to 2008. There are certainly positives for the University to take away from the exercise and some departments, such as Sports Science, have shown real improvement. On the other hand though, results from, for example, Computer Science and Physics show that there is still room for improvement.