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Data were sought from UK higher education institutions (HEIs) on the intended volume, main areas of research and areas of impact planned for submission; though HEIs are not bound to make their final submissions according to this preliminary data. The data were collected to inform planning for the assessment phase of the exercise by the funding bodies and the REF panels, and will inform further appointments of members and assessors to the sub-panels. The survey data were collected by the REF team, on behalf of the UK HE funding bodies[1].

The data show that HEIs expect to submit 74,584 of full-time equivalent (FTE) staff to REF 2021, compared to 52,077 FTE in REF 2014, which is a 43 per cent increase. The scale of the increase reflects changes made to the way that staff are submitted to the exercise, moving from a selective approach in REF 2014 to submitting all staff with significant responsibility for research. These changes reflect recommendations made in Lord Stern’s independent review of REF, published in 2016[2]. The FTE expected to be submitted to REF 2021 is estimated to be 73 per cent of the total eligible population[3].

In setting the number of outputs required for submission at 2.5 per FTE, the funding bodies aimed to ensure the overall number submitted did not substantially vary from the number returned in 2014. This was to ensure the workload of the panels was manageable, given the increase expected in staff. The survey data indicate that the policy is expected to broadly achieve the intended aim, with a change in the overall number of outputs anticipated for submission of just 2 per cent. The number of impact case studies expected is also similar to REF 2014, with a 1 per cent change to the previous exercise.

The expected increase in the volume of staff to be submitted shows some variation by discipline, with the greatest increases expected in the disciplines covered by Main Panel C (Social Sciences). Table 1 sets out the data by Main Panel area[4].

Table 1


Anticipated FTE in REF 2021

Submitted FTE in REF 2014

Percentage change


















[1] The four UK HE funding bodies are the Department for the Economy Northern Ireland, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, Research England and the Scottish Funding Council.

[2] Lord Nicholas Stern conducted an independent review of REF, considering its effectiveness and effects on the research process and research careers. The report contained a number of recommendations for future exercises.

[3] The eligible population for REF 2021 has been estimated from the 2018/19 HESA staff return. This includes academic staff on an employment contract of 0.2 FTE or greater, whose primary employment function is to undertake either ‘research only’ (where such staff are not identified as research assistants) or ‘teaching and research’.

[4] The main panels oversee the assessment in REF 2021, ensuring the assessment criteria and standards are consistently applied. They are responsible for signing-off the results recommended by the sub-panels. The main panels include international members to provide assurance about the international benchmarking of standards. There are four main panels: Main Panel A (medicine, health and life sciences), Main Panel B (physical sciences, engineering and mathematics), Main Panel C (social sciences) and Main Panel D (arts and humanities).