Research Excellence Framework- ‘It’s quite a complicated beast’

by Sara Elizabeth Fisher

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is probably not a concept well known to students, perhaps deeming the research conducted by departments somewhat detached from our own education. However, Aberystwyth’s recent performance in the REF suggests that not only should we be aware of what it is and its impacts but we should also be proud to be taught at such an institution. I spoke to Professor Colin McInnes who leads the Research Excellence Framework for Aberystwyth University. So what exactly is the REF?

‘Every 5 years all departments in all universities are given the chance to have their research quality assessed and the benefits of having this are twofold. Firstly profile and peer recognition, if you do well you are seen as being a strong and successful department in research terms and secondly the money, there is money attached to how well you do’.

This REF is measured by three main areas; the first is quality of the research, the second is the research environment and thirdly the impact of the research. A composite score is given of the three areas. The last submissions went in November, 2014, however departments within the university start preparing for the submission on average ten months before the assessment. This year’s results were released in December. Participating in the REF is a sign of departmental strength. So how did Aberystwyth do?

‘We did roughly as expected. We can’t compete with the large, science intensive universities we are just not big enough, we don’t get the same grant capture, the same quantity of staff going in. So if you compare us to a Manchester or an Imperial College London we are not going to do as well simply because of size and subject mix. If you take that into account we were very satisfied with how we did. We maintained our position, which is probably punching a bit above what we would consider our natural position’.

However, some departments within the university did extremely well, with one of those departments being Geography and Earth Sciences which ‘did better than last time and matched our expectations within the department. In other words we thought the department was very strong and we thought it should do very well. Our hopes were realized when the results came out so we did very well’.

At this point many people will be asking why this matters to students and why we should take notice of such frameworks. This is an important factor for students as post-graduation we will be recognised as coming from a good department and we can take pride in being part of a research leading institution. Perhaps the most obvious and attractive benefit of doing well is that high achieving departments attract quality staff and as a result the teaching is somewhat cutting edge, learning what is new and important in Geography. As Professor Colin McInnes states ‘the REF is one of the key indicators to how good a department is’. There is also a financial incentive to doing well in the REF, often six figure grants are made in the light of good results and this has a positive impact on student experience and opportunities at the university.

Research counts and research speaks, perhaps understanding more of what happens outside the narrow confines of our degree will teach us to perhaps value our experience on a different level. It is easy to judge a university on location and rankings on various things but I would argue that a closer look at the actual output of a department is an extremely strong representation of what your degree will be like. From my perspective my three years studying Human Geography has been extremely interesting. It far surpassed my expectations. Many of my friends have remarked on how varied my modules are, studying underground art, monuments and world religions is typical. The type and quality of research produced in the Geography department, I believe is in evidence in the modules provided and the enjoyment of the degree we study.

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