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Classification Overall quality profile description
4* World-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour
3* Internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which nonetheless falls short of the highest standards of excellence
2* Recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour
1* Recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour
U/C Unclassified Work not meeting published definition of research for the purposes of the REF or which falls below national standards

REF2021 landscape

Results highlights

  • Overall, 78% of our submission was assessed as 4* (world-leading) or 3* (internationally excellent) – an improvement on the score of around 63% in the corresponding 2014 REF
  • Our grade point average improved from 2.73 to 3.02
  • Of the 16 Units of Assessment that can be compared directly to 2014, 13 saw the number of 4* scores increase, with the same number improving when you combine 4* and 3*
  • Eight Units of Assessment achieved 80% 4* or 3* scores – up from three in 2014
  • English Language and Literature saw 95% of its submission rated at 4* or 3*, and Architecture Built Environment and Planning, 94% 
  • Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, which contains our award-winning marine and terrestrial sciences, also scored 94% for 4* and 3*.

What is the REF? 

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the system for assessing research in UK HEIs. It was first conducted in 2014, and replaced the previous Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The REF is conducted jointly by Research England (RE), the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) and the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland (DfE). The REF is managed by the REF team, based at RE, on behalf of the four UK HE funding bodies, and is overseen by the REF Steering Group, consisting of representatives of the four funding bodies.
The primary purpose of REF 2021 is to produce assessment outcomes for each submission made by institutions. The four HE funding bodies intend to use the assessment outcomes to inform the selective allocation of their grant for research to the institutions which they fund, with effect from 2022–23. 


The assessment provides accountability for public investment in research and produces evidence of the benefits of this investment. The assessment outcomes provide benchmarking information and establish reputational yardsticks, for use within the HE sector and for public information. 
The REF is a process of expert review, with discipline-based expert panels assessing submissions made by HEIs in 34 UOAs. A submission comprises a complete set of data about staff, outputs, impact and the environment returned by an HEI in any of the 34 UOAs. 

The three key elements of the REF


Makes up 60% of the assessment and consists of outputs produced by the University during the assessment period (1 January 2014 to 31 December 2020). They will be assessed for the quality in terms of their ‘originality, significance and rigour’, with reference to international research quality standards. The total number of outputs must equal 2.5 times the summed FTE of the unit’s submitted staff.


This makes up 15% of the assessment and describes the environment we have to support our research. This includes research strategy, staff development and support for PGRs, collaboration both inside and outside academia and equality and diversity. It also includes data on research income and post-graduate degrees awarded. This will be assessed in terms of its ‘vitality and sustainability’, including the approach to enabling impact from its research, and its contribution to the vitality and sustainability of the wider discipline or research base related to the period 1 August 2013 to 31 July 2020.


Makes up 25% of the assessment and consists of case studies detailing the benefits from our research. They will be will assessed for the ‘reach and significance’ of impacts on the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life that were underpinned by excellent research conducted in the submitted unit. The impact stays with the institution where the research was carried out, i.e. it does not move with the member of staff. Case studies describing specific examples of impacts achieved during the assessment period (1 August 2013 to 31 July 2020), underpinned by excellent research in the period 1 January 2000 to 31 December 2020.

REF 2021 University of Plymouth researchers

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