The latest Research Excellence Framework assessment, published today (18th December), is said to show that the quality of the UK's university research has "improved significantly" since the exercise was last completed in 2008.
The REF process, run by the four higher education funding bodies for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is intended to provide a thorough assessment of research quality and is used to inform funding decisions in subsequent years.
Benchmarked against international standards, 22% of research outputs in REF 2014 were judged to be of "world-leading" (four star) quality, up from 14% in 2008; meanwhile a further 50% were judged to be of "internationally excellent" (three star) quality, up from 37% in 2008.
Three-quarters of universities had at least 10% of work graded as world-leading, with the top quarter seeing at least 30% graded in that category; meanwhile three-quarters had at least 49% of their work graded as internationally excellent, with the top quarter having at least 79% in that category.
The REF judges institutions on three factors: publications, evidence of "impact" on the wider society, and the research environment provided. In an overall assessment of the three factors, the academic departments receiving the highest percentage of four star assessments were University College London's economics department and University of Oxford's social work and social policy department (both scoring 79%), the same department at the London School of Economics (71%), Cambridge's electrical and electronic engineering department (69%), LSE's economics department (69%) and the music, dance and drama department at Queen Mary's, University of London (69%).
Professor Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said: "The 2014 REF represents an outstanding achievement… UK research has improved from an already strong position in the last exercise, with many universities delivering more ground-breaking work of the highest quality. Universities have also demonstrated how their excellent research has impacted positively on economic growth, health and social well-being and improved quality of life." She added: "These achievements demonstrate the huge return on public investment in research. Continued investment is essential in developing a globally competitive economy."
Atkins also said the REF process was "at the forefront of international efforts to assess the impact of research and provides new incentives to enhance the public benefits derived from research.
However REF 2014, which has involved peer-review by four panels and 36 sub-panels, involving 898 academics and 259 users of research assessing 191,150 research outputs and 6,975 impact case studies from 154 Higher Education institutions, has also been criticised by academics as laborious, expensive and divisive.