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The recommencement of REF 2021 marks the start of the countdown to the revised submission deadline of midday, 31 March 2021, following a period during which the exercise was on hold in response to COVID-19.

To support universities in the final stages of submission preparation, following the pause period and COVID-19 disruption experienced, the four UK higher education funding bodies that conduct the REF have agreed the final set of revisions to the timetable and guidance. They have also provided preliminary advice on putting in place contingency arrangements for REF submission preparation.

Informed by responses to surveys on REF revisions, the ‘Guidance on revisions to REF 2021’ (REF 2020/02) describes the changes both to the overall timetable, as well as the guidance that aims to take account of the effects of COVID-19. Included among the revisions are: an allowance for submitting outputs that are delayed due to COVID-19, and extension of the existing process for removing output requirements where there are mitigating staff circumstances, to include COVID-19 related circumstances; options to provide explanatory text to the assessing panels on affected outputs and impact case studies; and additional text to describe the effects of COVID-19 on the institution’s environment for supporting research and enabling impact.

Alongside that publication, the ’Advice on contingency planning’ (REF 2020/03) provides some points of advice for universities to consider, in order to minimise further disruption to the preparation of REF submissions.

The funding bodies’ decisions on the REF timetable and revisions were informed by advice from the expert panels and engagement with the higher education sector and partners between April and July. This included surveys on the best timing for the revised submission deadline, and on revisions to the assessment framework that could help to take account of the effects of COVID-19 on REF submissions. Effects on submissions include delays and disruption to planned submission data, as well as to the process of preparing submissions itself.

Speaking about the revised guidance, Dr Kim Hackett, REF Director, said:

‘We were seeking to balance a number of things in developing revisions to the exercise. In particular, ensuring a fair approach, that could make some allowance for the effects of COVID-19 on submissions, while minimising additional burden on the submission process. We received over 160 responses to our survey seeking views on the proposed mitigations, with the majority confirming these as appropriate. Alongside valuable discussion with the expert panels, the detailed comments provided in the survey responses have informed the final provisions set out in the guidance.’

Commenting on the recommencement, Dr Steven Hill, Director of Research at Research England and Chair of the REF Steering Group, said:

‘We know that universities have invested a lot in preparing submissions to date, and that in the context of the seven-year cycle, the disruption caused by COVID-19 has come at a late stage in this process. It is of great importance that this investment can be properly recognised, and research excellence identified and rewarded, in moving ahead to complete the assessment process. The outcomes of the REF will provide extremely valuable information on the achievements of UK research.’

The revisions to the guidance are due to be incorporated into the data collection software for the REF in the coming weeks. A summary of changes to the submission system is available here.

Further detailed guidance about making submissions, including on the submission of physical outputs, will be provided in autumn 2020. Further advice on contingency planning for the REF will follow a review by the funding bodies of the level of disruption being experienced, scheduled in November 2020.


  • The four funding bodies are Research England, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), and the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland (DfE).
  • Read the ‘Guidance on revisions to REF 2021’ here, and the ‘Advice on contingency planning’ here.
  • A summary of responses to the survey on proposed mitigations will be published shortly.