UCL comes second in national research rankings

UCL comes second in national research rankings

Mary Newman explains the latest REF results

On Thursday my Facebook feed exploded with smug UCL students (and UCL itself), as the most recent national ranking put us 2nd in the UK, only behind Oxford – better luck next time Cambridge.

But what is this based on?

What does it mean for UCL, and most importantly, its students?

And how much money do we get? (Spoiler alert – it’s not really that important)

Well, you came to the right place. Here at Pi, insider knowledge abounds, and we can give you the full scoop in actually humanly comprehensible language, as opposed to the results themselves.

REF stands for Research Excellence Framework, and basically began as a way for universities to decide who should get what share of a massive pot of government money. However, as students’ fees have skyrocketed, universities rely on it less as a bidding process, and more as a method of separating the wheat from the chaff. Or, the UCLs from the KCLs.

Universities submit units (e.g. Modern Languages), which then compete against like units across the country. Awards of 4*, “world-leading”, to 1*, “we don’t need no education”, are given to each unit based on: the quality of publications (65% of the final mark), impact (20%) and environment (15%). The last two being just as vague as they sound. UCL came top in pretty much all of these.


“Impact”, while slipping in rather inconspicuously at just 20%, is where the focus will be for the majority of academics this year. It’s a new category since the last REF (then known as the RAE), and basically seeks to judge how much bang-for-their-buck the public is getting. It judges universities on the public’s engagement with any events and lectures they might put on, and is rated via submission of case studies.

Since publication on Wednesday, the results from each unit have been collated and put into a lovely chart.

REF 2014

But what that chart actually means is not so obvious. In the literature released along with the results, it appears that the REF is doing some rather intense navel gazing.

The problem is, well, that UCL comes off looking great. As does Oxbridge and the other London universities… and that’s about it. Research Fortnight warns against cracking open that champagne (or more likely Lambrini) too soon, “Universities in London and the south-east of England are likely to prosper at the expense of the rest of the UK.”

Jessie J was truly right when she sang, “it’s not about the money, money, money”. Few universities rely on the REF for funding anymore, especially since the rise in student fees. This year, both Manchester and Leeds took severe hits, as well as many smaller universities. But while institutions such as Oxbridge and those in the Golden Triangle can afford to support less successful departments, smaller institutions are left with little choice but to cut – modern languages have been particularly hard hit.

Looking ahead to the time of the next REF in 2020, we have to imagine the academic landscape. Do we really want just the top institutions having the ability to offer all subjects, while the (arguably) second-tier is limited to those that bring home the bacon?

And from a student’s perspective, the majority of the REF applications are done entirely by teaching staff. In my mind, lecturers should be in the classrooms or researching, not researching the research of their fellow researchers.

The REF in general is endemic of a university system obsessed with results and ranking. While our next prospectus may look great, the prospect outside of the Home Counties is not so rosy.

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