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Understanding the REF

A crash course in what it means, why it’s important and how to use it, by Melanie Butler

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) for 2021 is out, a year late because of Covid, but causing the traditional pride and anguish to university departments the length and breadth of Britain. The Government-backed exercise assesses the quality of academic research across the country, in the experts’ judgements, delivered across 34 academic subjects – or Units of Assessment, as they are called.

The main job of the REF is to provide information which will allow Government research funds to be allocated to the strongest departments in each field. For would-be EFL postgraduate students it also reveals which departments in which universities offer the most cutting-edge research and research-active teaching. It tells them who are the traditional powers and who are the rising stars in the three main Units of Assessments under which English language research falls: English language, education and linguistics. There may also be ELT researchers submitting their papers in other fields (neuroscience, perhaps, or psychology), in which case, can they please let us know.

The Gazette uses the REF to produce lists of the university departments which have submitted ELT-related research in the order that their results have been ranked by the Times Higher Education (THE), which also runs rankings of the world’s universities.

But for the REF, it is the subject areas covered by university departments that are important. We cannot provide an overall ranking for the three academic areas covered, any more than we could produce a league table combining teams from football, cricket and cycling.

What we can show you is which departments in which universities have ELT research deemed by the specialist experts from the REF to have produced world class or internationally excellent work in education or in English language or in linguistics. It is up to prospective students to work out which field most closely aligns with their academic interests and career ambitions, and which departments in each field most interests them.

We must emphasise that a research-active department is not necessarily the right place for all Master’s students to go. Those new to teaching or just looking to improve may prefer a practical course with lots of hands-on practice and will be much happier in a course run by teachers and trainers in a language centre, and there are plenty of good ones.

It is, of course, possible to combine the two, as is done in the Master’s courses jointly run by education departments and language centres at Nottingham, Glasgow and Sheffield Hallam, all of which appear in our education ranking starting on the opposite page.

Of course, the scores under, say, English language or linguistics do not just refer to the ELT staff. Indeed, in past REF-style exercises, it was possible for researchers to not even submit their research for assessment. But REF 2021 stopped this, insisting that all staff with significant research responsibility submit some of their work for assessment. Over 76,000 staff submitted their research, 50% more than in 2014 when the last REF took place.

Another major difference is the increase in the emphasis on the social and economic impact of the research rather than just the power. That is, the total amount of researchers submitting and the total amount of research submitted. This has produced a revolution in the kind of university which is recognised as outstanding in an individual field. Although the elite research universities who belong to the Russell Group still did well, the newer universities – be they ‘plate glass’ universities founded in the 60s or the post-92 institutions, which were awarded university status after 1992 – could also rise to the top in a particular area.

Take the top performers in our three Units of Assessment: Britain’s most ancient university, Oxford, tops the ELT-related Master’s charts in education, the hugely popular plate glass university, Lancaster, tops our charts in linguistics, while in English language it is the post-92 University of Bedfordshire which, thanks to its world-beating team at Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment that nosed ahead of the traditional corpus giants at Birmingham, Nottingham and Liverpool to take top spot in English language.

Remember, these are rankings of subjects in particular departments, not of universities overall. And if you’re looking for a Master’s from our list you need to decide first what is your primary interest in English language teaching. Is it English in particular, language in general or teaching, and then you should know if your best bet is a department which does research in English language, linguistics or education.

We have tried as hard as we can to track down all the departments offering an ELT related Master’s which submitted to the REF in these three subjects. If we have left your department out, let us know. If you are angry at the weight given in our listings to impact rather than research power, we apologise, but we depend on the boffins at the THE, who are much better at rankings than we are.

And, finally, congratulations to all the universities listed here. Every last one of you has produced research which has been deemed by REF experts as world ranking and/or internationally excellent, and you all offer great Master’s. British ELT should be proud of you.

Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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