Global university benchmarking helps institutions learn from and share with each other, says William Bramwell
Over the past 20 years, research funding has become more project-based and competitive, while accountability requirements are more stringent. In response, universities have allocated increasing resources to pursuing, winning, managing and reporting on research funding and activities.
At the same time, higher education institutions have become more responsive to the external actors—funders, international partners, governments and local communities—that make up the wider ecosystems where their research is contracted, conducted and communicated.
The support developed to facilitate this research varies hugely across the research lifecycle and in different institutions, places and regulatory contexts. But universities also face common decisions in maintaining and expanding their research base.
These include securing sustainable sources of research income; providing support services, training and career incentives for academic staff; identifying infrastructure and policies needed to manage research portfolios; setting strategies and performance indicators; and measuring external engagement and impact.
These are the issues identified by the ACU Measures Supporting Research Survey published by the Association of Commonwealth Universities. ACU Measures is an online benchmarking service that captures data on the support structures, priorities and provisions that drive research across the association’s global membership of more than 500 institutions. The survey was co-designed with the ACU’s Supporting Research Community of more than 600 academic and professional staff, and received submissions from 95 universities in 29 countries and five continents.
Compare and contrast
The initial summary of findings released in February reveals significant disparities, broadly correlating with country income, in access to funding, scale of research activities and institutional support systems. For example, universities in low-income countries commit more than double the proportion of their institutional budget to supporting research than those in wealthy nations, and receive 50 per cent less income from industry collaborations.
Institutions in high-income countries accounted for 88 per cent of all research grant applications. African institutions reported a three per cent share of grant applications, and 40 per cent noted the absence of costing policies for overheads, which are essential to recovering the full economic costs of grants.
The survey showed that institutions in low-income countries allocate a relatively high proportion of professional staff to policy and compliance issues. This may reflect more stringent accountability requirements from external funders compared with universities in high-income nations; it certainly diverts capacity away from grant management, which is where universities in wealthy countries focus their support staff.
These findings, then, reveal not just the scale and types of research activities and support, but also the availability and deployment of people, money and infrastructure. The data break down research support into a range of institutional enablers, allowing universities to make the comparisons most relevant to their priorities and needs.
This is made possible by a model that prioritises collaboration over competition. With ACU Measures, universities can compare themselves against others in similar places and economic circumstances using aggregated data, rather than against individual universities—this is not a ranking. Institutional anonymity builds trust with participants and promotes internal cohesion, as information must be gathered across each university.
As a convenor of the sector, the survey findings allow the ACU to share good practice between universities at different stages of their evolution and around common challenges and shared priorities. Institutions in low-income countries, for example, report difficulties in identifying funding calls and research partners, and in writing grant applications. Wealthier institutions raise issues of project sustainability around securing follow-on funding and maintaining institutional capacity to deliver projects.
Across all income groups, participating universities flagged the shared challenge of translating research outputs into commercial opportunities and sustainable contributions to communities and policy.
Such insights aid understanding of the contexts, constraints and needs of ACU members, reinforcing the association’s work to build equity into interactions between universities across the Commonwealth. As the recently launched ACU Equitable Research Partnerships Toolkit makes clear, such collaborations can enhance the quality and relevance of research—provided they are fair. Revealing the enablers and barriers to university research support systems is a critical starting point in brokering such relationships.
The inaugural Supporting Research Survey offers a unique opportunity for the global higher education sector to share expertise in an anonymous, non-competitive way. Future iterations will provide enhanced insights and longitudinal analysis of the issues affecting research support across the sector. Doing so underlines the ACU’s commitment to strengthening the research capacity of Commonwealth universities through sharing institutional data, driven by the principles of shared learning and collaboration.
William Bramwell is senior research officer at the Association of Commonwealth Universities. He is presenting his work at the Inorms 2023 conference in Durban this week. Research Professional News is media partner for the event.
A version of this article appeared in Research Fortnight