Research management benchmarking – our 2016 survey findings

Universities are under increased pressure to self-assess their research management (RM) provision to determine their strengths, weaknesses, and alignment to trends. This is due in part to international ranking exercises, greater expectations of accountability for funding once granted, and the now iterative links between performance and funding. In addition, increasing international collaboration and demand for accountability of externally-funded research require universities to develop ways to assess their performance that is recognisable by users outside their institution.

ACU Measures, the ACU’s annual online benchmarking exercise, responds to this concern by offering members the opportunity to benchmark their performance in four key areas of university management (including RM) against other ACU member institutions.

With more than 500 ACU member institutions in over 50 countries, each with their own unique configuration and human resource allocation, the ACU Measures – Research Management survey does not attempt to run in-depth exercises on specific offices. Rather, the exercise looks at functions in a set of common areas in Research Management and Administration (RMA) such as sources of income and proportions of active research staff.


A total of 98 universities from 27 countries participated in the ACU Measures – Research Management 2016 exercise, which is a substantial increase compared with 2014, when 44 institutions from 18 countries participated.

This points to an increased interest in benchmarking exercises of this type, particularly in Africa and Asia: African institutions accounted for 46% of the sample (26% from Southern African and 20% from the rest of Africa) and Asian institutions accounted for 32% of the sample (25% from South Asia and 7% from the rest of Asia). The remaining regions – Australasia, the Pacific, the Caribbean and South America, North America, and Europe – comprised less than a quarter of the total sample.

The ACU benchmarking approach

The ACU Measures – Research Management survey includes a combination of quantitative and qualitative questions to provide a comprehensive picture of the functions, processes and perspectives on RM provision in member institutions.

The survey was developed in consultation with member universities, building on information acquired from related ACU activities and the ACU’s long-standing process-benchmarking approach. This approach is a thread that runs through many of ACU’s RM activities and is centred on the evaluation of processes within universities to facilitate national and international comparison of activities, and enable the sharing of experiences and the dissemination of good practice. These exercises have proved to be successful and popular over the years, with benchmarking groups deliberately kept small – no more than 16 participating universities at a time – to ensure in-depth discussion.

In our efforts to transpose the process-benchmarking approach into measurable benchmarking data, we have aimed for simplicity, catering to our diverse membership and acknowledging the various ways in which RM is organised within institutions. For example, anecdotal evidence from previous ACU activities indicates that the lack of a formal RM office does not mean that there is no activity in the area – activity might be led by individuals who are interested in building their institutional capacity in these areas. To reflect this, we don’t qualify the question regarding the location of RM staff within the institution, as the question is designed to provide insight into the distribution of individuals who work in RM across the institution regardless of level or the percentage (%) FTE they constitute. For added simplicity, where possible, the survey complements already existing efforts in related areas – i.e. we use pre-defined terms such as Active Researcher and Efficiencies (time to complete specific tasks) agreed by CASRAI[1] that has done substantial work in maintaining a common and extensible dictionary in the area of research administration.

ACU Measures is not intended to replace our process-benchmarking activities, but to complement and extend them to a larger number of institutions, by offering annual online benchmarking. Similarly to process-benchmarking, ACU Measures does not rank institutions; rather it seeks to enable institutions to assess their performance through comparison against the average performance in peer institutions.

Key findings

As is to be expected with such a diverse group of participating institutions, a wide variety of challenges and areas for improvement were reported. The findings below are drawn from trends identified in the qualitative sections of the 2016 survey, where institutions provided their views on RM, perspectives on provision, and key challenges and improvements.

Funding for research and research management was the most frequently cited key challenge, noted by the majority of institutions (see figure 1). Funding challenges include poor access to funding, a lack of competitive funding schemes within the country, difficulty with matching funds, and the reduction of government funding. Some responses from participants appear to indicate that the competitive funding environment itself was the challenge.

Funding was also the second most frequently cited key area for improvement (see figure 2), though some participants pointed specifically to the need to diversify sources of funding and not necessarily to a shortage of funding or difficulty accessing funding.

Figure 1. Key challenges identified in Research Management and Administration (RMA) 2016 (in %)

RM figure 1

Source and sample: ACU Measures Research Management survey 2016 (N=81). Responses include only areas mentioned by 10% or more of participating institutions.

Staffing for both the research function and the RM function were among the most frequently cited key challenges (see figure 1), particularly attracting and retaining the right research staff, and insufficient numbers of skilled RM staff.

Following this trend, career progression and professional development for RMA staff was the most frequently cited area for improvement (see figure 2). Participants alluded to the need for institutional support as well as wider support and recognition of RM across the HE sector, with specific suggestions of implementing an ‘approved career progression guideline for RM staff’, ‘professional qualifications in this discipline’, and ‘clear career pathways, particularly for junior staff’. This was also reflected in participants’ dissatisfaction with the provision of institutional RM-related training for staff in their institutions (see figure 3).

Figure 2. Key areas for improvements identified in Research Management and Administration (RMA) 2016 (in %)

RM figure 2

Source and sample: ACU Measures Research Management survey 2016 (N=80). Responses include only areas mentioned by 10% or more of participating institutions.

While participating institutions were overall satisfied with the current management of research information within their universities (see figure 3), research information management was another area cited as both a key challenge and key area for improvement (see figures 1 and 2) – with more comments provided under the key improvements section – indicating that this is an emerging area of focus in RMA.

Finally, participating institutions showed most confidence in ‘ethics and responsible conduct of research’, which was rated as ‘good’ or ‘very good’ by the highest number of institutions (see figure 3). None of the participating institutions cited this as a key challenge or an area for improvement.

Figure 3. Satisfaction with Research Management and Administration (RMA) provision 2016

RM figure 3

Source and sample: ACU Measures Research Management survey 2016.


While the primary purpose of ACU Measures is institutional benchmarking, information gathered as part of the exercise can also be used to inform the ACU on its members’ activities and positions in certain areas – helping inform decisions on our new programmes and resource allocation. 

The responses in 2016, though not sufficiently high to portray definitive generalisations, do highlight areas where institutions have expressed common views in RM, namely funding and staffing. The exercise also highlights the difficulty in applying measures for RM that are meaningful across different countries and institutions – and by extension, the importance of developments in this area.

[1] The Consortia Advancing Standards in Research Administration Information (CASRAI) is an international non-profit dedicated to reducing the administrative burden on researchers and improving business intelligence capacity of research institutions and funders.

Last modified on 14/06/2017