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What is REF?

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the system run by the UK higher education funding bodies to assess the quality of research taking place in UK higher education institutions. It first took place in 2014, replacing the previous Research Assessment Exercises, and the current REF submission deadline was November 2020, but has been extended to 31 March 2021 to take account of the disruption caused by Covid-19.

The REF is intended to:

  • provide accountability for public investment in research, and evidence of the benefits of that investment
  • provide benchmarking information for use the HE sector and for public information
  • inform the allocation of 'quality-related' (QR) funding for research.

The REF assesses the quality of an institution’s research outputs, impacts and environment by a process of peer review, carried out by expert disciplinary panels made up of senior academics, international representatives, and research users from business, industry and the public and third sectors. Research outputs, impacts and environment are graded from 4* (‘world-leading’) to 1* (‘recognised nationally’).

REF 2021 results

In May 2022, the UK higher education funding bodies published the outcomes of REF 2021, which demonstrate that the Royal College of Art continues to be a world-leading research-intensive institution. The results show that:

  • We have doubled our research power, remaining a research-intensive institution with 100 per cent of our academic staff submitted
  • The vast majority of our submission was graded world-leading and internationally excellent across the three main categories of ‘Outputs’, ‘Impact’ and ‘Environment’
  • We have maintained the high quality of our research, increasing the proportion of outputs graded world-leading and internationally excellent while more than doubling the full time equivalent of staff submitted
  • A higher proportion of our outputs were graded world-leading (4*) than in 2014
  • Our research continues to generate strong impact for business, policy and communities globally: we increased the number of impact case studies submitted, with the School of Arts & Humanities and the Research Centres particularly prominent, and the vast majority were graded as internationally excellent (3*) and world-leading (4*), confirming our outstanding Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) results
  • We have maintained a 100 per cent research environment rating at 3*/4*. This reflects the strength of our research environment and our supportive and stimulating research culture, which has seen the number of doctoral degrees awarded during this REF period increase by 300 per cent compared to REF 2014, and our research income increase by 236 per cent, with our four interdisciplinary research centres attracting over £10 million of UKRI funding in recent years.

You can find more information about our REF 2021 results here.

REF 2021 submission

The RCA submitted 100 per cent of its staff to REF 2021, a total of 174 members of staff and some 300 outputs, of which many were practice-based outputs (exhibitions, artefacts, installations) presented in the form of a portfolio, while others were books, book chapters and journal articles. Nine impact case studies were submitted, demonstrating the breadth and range as well as the impact of RCA research.

The impact case studies included fine art and curating projects (Kennard, Shani, Watson), inclusive design projects with commercial, social and healthcare impacts (Myerson, West and the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design), design-led citizen science promoting public engagement with biodiversity (Phillips), typographic design for widening access to Indic texts (Ramanathan) and design and communication influence on the work of a global company (Hall, Simmons, Triggs).

Our REF environment statement illustrated the growth and success of research at the RCA since the previous REF exercise, reporting an increase in research income (from £8.7 million to £20.5 million over the current REF period), an increase in staff submitted to the REF from 95 to 174, and an increase in doctoral degrees awarded from 57 to 170.

More information about the RCA's preparations for REF 2021 can be found in the College’s Code of Practice on the Selection of Staff for REF 2021, which sets out the steps the RCA took to ensure that fairness, transparency, equality and diversity were at the heart both of the way we deliver our strategic objectives for research and knowledge exchange, and of the way we prepared our submission for REF 2021.

The Research & Knowledge Exchange Office oversees the RCA’s REF preparation and submission, working with the College’s REF Strategy Group.

RCA REF 2021 impact case studies

Collage of 8 images representing impact case studies.

Bringing feminist art to new audiences for the benefit of galleries, artists and publics

A series of stand-alone yet interconnected performances, installations and films of monologue texts by Tai Shani from the Royal College of Art has encouraged wholesale reappraisal of feminist interventions in contemporary art practice among curators, artists and the general public.

Expanding communities of readers: typographic support for Indic scripts and for children’s books in India

Research by Ramanathan has enabled the preservation of and enhanced access to Indic classical texts and Indic scripts, by providing typographic frameworks and design guidelines for publication of a bilingual book series, the Murty Classical Library of India.

Harnessing the power of political art to mobilise the public, to change how museums engage with public discourse and support campaigning

RCA research brings protest through art to the public. This research has changed public understanding of art as protest, empowered disenfranchised and disaffected communities, and shaped our collective discourse on social and political imperatives.

Human-based workplace design research influencing commercial office property industry

Traditional workplace design is engineering-led and focused on efficiency. Myerson’s research, which explores a sensory, experiential and human-centred approach to workplace design, changed the practices of some of the world’s major developers, manufacturers and architects, and improved the experiences of office workers.

Improving public understanding of nature and pro-biodiversity behaviours through open design and engagement

RCA research into open design and public participation changed the understanding and actions of citizens and organisations towards nature and biodiversity. This resulted in new pro-environmental behaviours and in policy changes to curriculum offerings in schools, universities and the biodiversity learning strategies of major public organisations, such as Design Museum and Natural History Museum.

Inclusive design for healthcare: creating impact in clinical practice and commercial investment by addressing barriers to innovation

RCA research led by Jonathan West and a team in the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design expanded the use of inclusive design techniques to address procurement and regulatory factors that constrain innovation in hospital and community health design.

Inclusive design for social wellbeing in the built environment impacts UK communities and policymakers

Research by the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design (HHCD) in the RCA broadened the focus of inclusive design in the built environment, with significant impact on public audiences and policy-making, and lead to substantial investment in new projects and initiatives.

Revealing the international and contemporary relevance of the Bauhaus

The Bauhaus is the most famous school of art, design and architecture of the 20th century, celebrated for its key role in European and American modernism. ‘bauhaus imaginista’ was a three-year international research project directed and curated by Grant Watson and Marion von Osten, commissioned to mark the Bauhaus centenary and realised through exhibitions and events in 11 countries.

RCA REF Strategy Group

The REF Strategy Group is chaired by the Director of Research & Innovation and is a sub-group of the Research, Knowledge Exchange and Innovation (RKEI) Strategy Committee. The REF Strategy Group is tasked with agreeing the RCA’s REF 2021 strategy, developing and approving RCA REF 2021 guidance materials (such as the Code of Practice), monitoring the RCA’s REF 2021 preparations, and overseeing the RCA’s REF 2021 submission.

REF 2014 results

In REF 2014, the RCA was assessed as the highest ranking UK specialist art and design institution in terms of 4* research overall, at 37 per cent.

A further 40 per cent of Royal College of Art research was rated as 3*, meaning that in total, 77 per cent of the College’s research was assessed as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. This represents a 12 point increase on the College’s RAE 2008 results.

The RCA submitted 95 staff to REF 2014, 65 per cent of the REF-eligible staff. This was the highest proportion of staff submitted by any UK art and design unit or institution, and reflects the research-intensive nature of the RCA. We submitted 7 impact case studies, on topics ranging from photography and the representation of conflict to design for patient safety.

View our REF 2014 impact case studies

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