Case studies

Advising Ulster University on supporting the creation of research impact in the context of Research Excellence Framework

Client: Ulster University

Project dates: May – August 2015


The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a mechanism by which the quality of research is periodically assessed at UK universities, to determine the level of funding received from government. In 2014, ‘impact’ was included for the first time as part of the assessment criteria, leading many universities to implement changes to their internal structures and processes. In the context of REF, impact is defined as “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia”.

During 2015, Oxentia worked with Ulster University to identify ways in which the institution could increase support for the creation of impact from its academic research. This project contributes to Ulster’s preparations for the next REF exercise, expected in 2020, and its approach to impact beyond REF. The scope of the work comprised a literature review, a review of best practice in impact support, situational analysis at Ulster, and comprehensive client recommendations.

What Oxentia provided

  1. Literature review. Oxentia’s review summarised the main findings of the most significant publications on REF impact, providing context and a baseline of existing knowledge. The publications highlighted common themes and best practice on supporting impact, such as the need to continually collect impact evidence and data, and the need to begin constructing case studies early.
  2. Best practice review. Oxentia reviewed best practice in supporting impact at 20 other universities across the UK by conducting semi-structured interviews with director-level research and innovation staff. The results highlighted common approaches to managing and supporting REF impact, with many interviewees suggesting ways in which internal processes could be improved for REF 2020.
  3. Situational analysis. Oxentia conducted an assessment of Ulster’s current approach to and support for impact by interviewing key internal and external stakeholders, providing a baseline understanding not only of operational processes, but also critical drivers and constraints. Interviewees emphasised factors they considered central to Ulster’s continued success in generating impact and to its REF ranking, and opportunities to improve.
  4. Recommendations. Oxentia analysed the findings of the research and reviews to identify the changes that would improve the current impact offering at Ulster. The final report’s recommendations address the university’s structure and roles related to impact, the REF case study preparation processes, support initiatives for impact more broadly, and certain risks and considerations.


The final report enabled Ulster University to make strategic changes within the Department of Research and Innovation, it has also informed the university’s broader approach to supporting impact.

Categorised: Case studies

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