REF2014 is revealing that textile research may have lost its identity

George Stylios (Heriot Watt University)

International Journal of Clothing Science and Technology

ISSN: 0955-6222

Article publication date: 2 March 2015



Stylios, G. (2015), "REF2014 is revealing that textile research may have lost its identity", International Journal of Clothing Science and Technology, Vol. 27 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

REF2014 is revealing that textile research may have lost its identity

Article Type: Editorial From: International Journal of Clothing Science and Technology, Volume 27, Issue 1

Well the genie is now out of the bottle. The so much talked about REF2014 that will dictate the allocation of the research funding of HEIs in the UK has been completed and the results are published ( What remains is how the £2 billion will actually be allocated along with the recommendation narratives of the peer review for every department. The excellence of research has been translated into three components; outputs, impact and environment, accounting for 65, 20 and 15 per cent, respectively. Impact and environment are being introduced for the first time and it is expected that impact (to UK economy, to industry and society) will be given more weighting in the next assessment in 2020.

I have written about research, its impact and its assessment in previous editorials (Stylios, 2013, 2014) and I have said that whether we like it or not we cannot go away from the fact that any government would want to try to allocate its funding by rewarding the best and promising schools/departments, so that those that have international leading outputs can continue to do good research. It’s easy to argue, it is transparent and with no risk. After all in science we make decisions by measuring and testing materials and in such a context we are familiar with these processes. Indeed what we are doing in journals like this one is nothing less than measuring by peers the best research results written in papers and promoting them by publication. Therefore I will not try to engage in any more arguments for or against REF, but lets read on.

So 154 UK universities participated in REF with 190,000 research submissions and 7,000 impact case studies made by 52,000 academics. The results of REF2014 are published by the Higher Education Funding Council for every HEI apportioning the proportion in each of the 36 units of assessment (there were 67 units of assessment last time in RAE2008). Overall Oxford’s submission has the highest grade point average in ten of the 36 units of assessment and if we are to rank universities only on outputs, jointly at the top are the Institute of Cancer Research and the London school of Economics, followed by Oxford, then Cambridge and Imperial College. The government must be happy, the UKs world leading research (4*) has moved from 14 per cent in 2008 to 22 per cent in 2014, if we include internationally excellent (3*) the figure is more impressive at 50 per cent against 37 per cent in 2008, a staggering 72 per cent! (Figure 1). Three quarters of the HEIs had at least 10 per cent world leading research (4*) and the top quarter had at least 30 per cent world leading, 44 per cent of impact was judged outstanding across all submissions. I know that a lot of good research takes place in universities and that staff are working hard so this is good for the UK’s research and education.

Figure 1 The overall REF2014 results including outputs, impact and environment, compared to RAE2008

There are, however, questions that are being asked about this process. It is estimated that universities have spend almost £50 million last year in polishing up their submissions, and there are questions about the £12 million cost for administration of the REF by the government; imagine how much research you can do with this amount of money. Then universities have spent much more on poaching of academics for boosting their submissions. Academic time for preparing REF is another huge hidden cost that needs to also be taken into account. There are also questions on the process itself; panels rely entirely on their own assessments, there is undoubtedly some lack of expertise and limited time; if one assessor only reads every output then we have a problem, in any case how can I read 1,200 journal articles whilst carrying on doing my normal duties? To do this properly I will probably need the best of two years doing nothing else! Excluding low-performing staff may not be a good strategy long term, demoralising, creating classes between teaching and research and most importantly missing of someone in a small office working out something that may change the world are worrying thoughts. Well with the recommendations of the peer review coming out any time soon and for the announcement of the actual funding allocation in March 2015 these questions will refuel and not go away. HEIs have accepted that they are already in the next research assessment period, expecting to be assessed again in 2020.

Textiles are not named in any of the units of assessment, but they can be found in unit 34 Art and Design, in unit 13 Electrical and Electronic engineering, Metallurgy and Materials and maybe some activity in unit 15 General Engineering. Schools/departments were free to choose materials or art and design or general engineering, but we see most returns in Art and Design, some in Materials and less in Engineering. Because some submissions have strong focus in design and others in technology, referral of outputs to other panels with more expertise may have been practised. We see textiles underpinning design and fashion as its main material in one side of the spectrum and SMART, interactive, multifunctional technical textile material science and technology in the opposite side with some work in the interfaces. In unit of assessment 42 Art and Design where most of textile activity has been reported with 84 institutions competing, overall Reading is in the first place scoring 56 per cent in internationally leading outputs (at 4*), however, their outputs are in typography and graphics and not in textiles, Manchester is sixth, Leeds 13th and the University of the Arts in London 15th. In Impact the School of Textiles and Design of Heriot Watt University (my own institution) scored 90 per cent (in fact the winning case study was mine on “Developing Technical Textile Products and Processes” and B Christie’s on “Unlocking Colour Chemistry”). The overall ranking formula weighs not only the quality of the outputs but the total number of staff submitted. But if we were to examine closer where textile research has taken place, it will not be surprising to identify it in universities that had a decade ago dedicated textile departments, these are Heriot Watt University, being the only one that retains textiles in its name, Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham Trend. My predictions are that as we try to blend textile design and technology, and considering the demands of design from our undergraduate courses, the identity of textiles may disappear.

What conclusions can we draw from this assessment for textiles and clothing? Well, the first realisation is that a lot of good textile research is being done in design schools. I see that the bridging design with textile science and technology is in the core strategy of many research active institutions, as I have been advocating for more than ten years. There is also extremely important research in material departments where blue sky but also applied research takes place in SMART, multifunctional and nano textiles, and further a field in general engineering, schools that do composites for cars, aeroplanes and buildings, soft wearable electronics that experiment with textile sensors done in electronics departments, in chemistry dyes and pigments for digitally printing textiles and we can go on. Whether or not textiles is lost its identity, and why comes from the fact that most of the textile research ten years ago was done in textile specialist departments; Leeds, Manchester, Heriot Watt, there is no school or department now that even has textiles in its name, with the exception of my own. We have shifted from fundamental problems in textile science to researching technical textiles (multifunctional, SMART, Nano, etc.) prompted by funding from government. The undergraduate textile courses that underpinned research have disappeared. Although the research in technical textiles is good and has benefited universities and industry, we should also continue to advance our understanding in the fundamental areas of textile science such as modelling, measurement and material/production interactions, which is also part of research excellence. I am always optimistic, I predicted 20 years ago that computers will be part of our clothing, look at modern aeroplanes, medical devices, buildings, roads, filters, telescope lenses, they all have a textile something in them.

In this fist issue of Volume 27 I wish to all our readers, authors and editorial board a healthy, prosperous and productive 2015.

George Stylios


Stylios, G.K. (2013), “Research intensity landscape in textiles and clothing”, IJCST, Vol. 25 No. 2, pp. 87-89

Stylios, G.K. (2014), “Discussing research impact”, IJCST, Vol. 26 No. 1, pp. 2-4

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