In order to understand the *#$€!¥!#* REF, you should bear in mind that universities over here have for the past century or so been funded almost exclusively by the government. That’s a system that has cultivated one of the outstanding educational systems in the world, second (perhaps, though it depends on the sample one takes) or superior to the USA. Since the economic collapse (for which the universities and other public services must have been primarily responsible, since it’s our funding being cut and not financiers having to repay the losses their speculation caused), funding for teaching (as distinct from research) is being cut to the bone; for humanities disciplines, our main government contribution will come for research. And the way the government’s research funding is determined is the *#$€!¥!#* REF.
(Research funding was determined by the *#$€!¥!#* REF’s predecessor, the RAE, in the past; since other sources of funding are drying up, though, the research component takes on heightened importance.)
The *#$€!¥!#* REF works this way: at a given moment, every university in the UK will gather pieces of research that represent the work of their staff in various subject areas, and a committee of scholars will evaluate all the books, essays, research reports, whatever, and assign each institution’s staff a piece of the research pie. That moment, for this REF cycle, begins January 2014. All across the UK, academics are straining to make sure that they have four significant publications in print before that deadline — all at once, except for the elect who have already published four estimable works.
What a messed up way of determining funding.