Lyons welcomes world-leading Higher Education research results

Date published: 12 May 2022

Economy Minister Gordon Lyons has welcomed the strong performance of Northern Ireland’s Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in the Research Excellence Framework 2021 (REF).

Economy Minister Gordon Lyons
Economy Minister Gordon Lyons

The UK-wide REF provides a rigorous assessment of the quality and impact of universities’ research across all subject areas. A total of 157 UK universities participated in REF, with submissions assessed by a series of expert panels comprising UK and international researchers, external users of research and experts in interdisciplinary research. Queen’s University, Ulster University and Stranmillis University College all participated in REF 2021.

One of the key findings of the REF 2021 was that, when benchmarked against international standards, 38% of the research submitted to REF by the Northern Ireland HEIs was assessed as “world-leading” (4*), an improvement on the 30% of research assessed to be of this quality in the previous REF 2014 exercise. REF 2021 assessed a further 49% of Northern Ireland HEIs; research as ‘Internationally excellent’ (3*), again an improvement on the 46% achieved in this respect in the REF 2014. 

Commenting on the REF results, Minister Lyons said: 

“Our HEIs are to be congratulated on their excellent REF results, which demonstrate the quality and diversity of research conducted across our institutions. The results provide evidence of the strength and impact of the research base in our institutions, with the vast majority of our HEIs’ research judged to be either world-leading or internationally excellent. 

“This excellent performance is underpinned by significant improvements across a range of subject areas since the previous exercise in 2014. This illustrates both the depth and breadth of our HEIs’ research excellence, from Allied Health Professions, Dentistry, Nursing and Pharmacy to Agriculture, Food and Veterinary Sciences, and from Computer Science and Physics, to Engineering to Law.”

REF 2021 also captures the real life benefits and impacts of the research undertaken by the local institutions to our society and economy, with the case studies submitted under REF demonstrating a diverse range of impacts, from the development of new technologies which will help to drive our economy, to key medical advances. 

Minister Lyons concluded: 

“The results reflect the hard work and talent of our institutions’ researchers, whilst also helping to demonstrate the significant return on public investment in research, in terms of both its role in delivering societal benefits and in supporting delivery of the Department’s innovation driven vision to deliver a ten times better economy with benefits for all of the people of Northern Ireland.

“The annual core research funding provided to the Northern Ireland HEIs by my Department plays a key role in sustaining much of our universities’ research activity, by supporting the research infrastructure in the institutions and by enabling them to maintain research capacity. I am delighted that this underpinning funding has provided a firm foundation which has assisted our local researchers in achieving the impressive REF 2021 results realised by the Northern Ireland institutions.”

Notes to editors: 

1. The REF was undertaken by the four higher education funding bodies for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: Research England, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), and the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland (DfE). REF 2021 was managed on behalf of the funding bodies by a UK team based at Research England.

2. The REF was last conducted in 2014. It replaced the previous Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).

3. The results also provide benchmarks and public information about the research performance of universities. The results will be used by the four UK higher education funding bodies to allocate research funding to universities – around £2 billion per year from 2022-23.  In Northern Ireland, the allocation of core recurrent research funding (QR) between the HEIs will be informed by the REF results. The overall QR budget for 2022-23 is still to be confirmed.

4. The results of the REF are available on the REF website

5. All data in this press release are UK-wide (aside from that reported for English regions).

6. Any UK institution meeting the definition of an higher education institution (HEI), as set out in the REF ‘Guidance on submissions’ (REF 2019/01) was eligible to participate in the exercise.

7. The REF is a discipline-based expert review process. 34 expert sub-panels, working under the guidance of four main panels, reviewed the submissions and made judgements on their quality. The panels comprised 900 academics, including 38 international members, and 220 users of research.

8. 157 HEIs across the UK participated, making a total of 1,878 submissions to the 34 panels. Institutions’ submissions ranged from four staff submitted to a single panel, to over 3,000 staff submitted to 30 panels.  Northern Ireland HEIs submitted (a combined 40 submissions) to 26 of the 34 REF Units of Assessment (UOA), the subject based areas under which universities submit to REF.  Queen’s University submitted to 22 UOAs, Ulster University to 17 UOAs and Stranmillis University College to 1 UOA.

9. The results are produced as ‘overall quality profiles’ which show the proportions of submitted activity judged to have met each quality level from 4* to unclassified. The quality levels are:

  • 4*   World-leading
  • 3*   Internationally excellent
  • 2*   Recognised internationally
  • 1*   Recognised nationally
  • U   Unclassified

10. The overall quality profile awarded to each submission is derived from three elements that were assessed:

  • The quality of research outputs. This contributes 60 per cent to the overall quality profile. The panels reviewed 185,594 submitted research outputs.
  • The social, economic and cultural impact of research. This contributes 25 per cent of the overall quality profile. The panels reviewed 6,781 submitted impact case studies.
  • The research environment. This contributes 15 per cent of the overall quality profile. The panels reviewed submitted environment statements and statistical data on research income and doctoral degrees. A statement about the overall institution’s environment was provided, to inform and contextualise the panel’s assessment.

11. An independent review of REF 2014, led by Lord Stern in 2016, introduced significant changes into the assessment framework for REF 2021, including the approach to submitting staff and outputs. These changes mean the exercise provides a different national picture of research quality, therefore, to its predecessor, limiting the extent to which meaningful comparisons can be drawn across the outcomes of the two exercises – for outputs in particular.

12. The outcomes of the REF are provided as quality profiles. We publish the results for the submissions made by each HEI. Within each UOA, submitting institutions are listed in alphabetical order. The REF team and the UK funding bodies do not produce single-number figures or league tables from the REF results.

13. Source for wider evidence about UK research performance in the period 2014 to 2020 is Clarivate Analytics. Forthcoming analysis will be available on the REF website.

14. For further information, see REF website.

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