Benchmarking Institutional Research Offices In 2020

By Rob Johnson and Lucia Loffreda 20/07/2020. This article was originally posted on ARMA’s website.

Late last year, ARMA launched its first ever nationwide survey of institutional research offices. We and our colleagues at Research Consulting have been working with ARMA over the last few months to analyse the survey findings. Our aim from the outset has been to build a comprehensive picture of the role of research offices at UK higher education institutions (HEIs), and to identify the key trends and challenges facing the research management profession

We’re therefore really pleased to announce that our final report summarising the findings of this successful benchmarking exercise is now publicly available. You can also find our additional COVID-19 analysis, a set of infographics, and the recording and slides from our public webinar at the same link.

A brief history of our study

We began coordinating this extensive review back in mid-2019, when Steph Bales, who was ARMA Chair at the time, and the ARMA Board identified a pressing need for reliable information on research office structures and resourcing levels, as well as common trends and issues. The development of an improved understanding of research office organisation and functions is also consistent with the professionalisation of research management seen in recent years.

With support from ARMA’s steering group, appointed from within the research management community, we designed the benchmarking survey and circulated it to research directors across the UK higher education sector in November. The survey questions covered a range of topics from research office structures, remits, and resourcing levels to expected trends and challenges within professional service functions.

By February 2020, we had a set of 54 complete responses ready for analysis, representing the views of around one third of the UK’s HEIs: participating institutions accounted for 42% of the £6.2 billion of research grants and contracts income generated by the higher education sector and over 2,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) research support staff. We later ran an additional mini-survey, to gain a deeper understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on research offices across the UK, highlighting emerging challenges and opportunities in these uncertain times.

In the next few sections, we share some of our key findings.

Research support structures keep changing

The extent of change in research support structures and management is expected to increase. Almost 80% of survey respondents reported experiences of restructuring in recent years, and 50% anticipate further structural changes in the next 12 months.

The difficulty of balancing central and faculty or department-based support is evident. The most common operational model relies on a central office, whereas fully devolved models were rare in our sample of respondents. Advocates of a central office approach noted that this enables more specialised expertise and more coordinated support. Those with partly decentralised models cite their ability to combine consistency of approach with better integration with faculty, school, or departmental research strategies.

Research offices fulfil a wide, and growing, range of functions

We identified 19 common functions for research offices, spanning operations, development & outreach, governance, people and systems. We found that REF support, research policy and governance are core functions for almost all research offices. Offices also have a central role in setting and implementing institutional research strategy and ensuring that ethics and integrity policies are respected.

There is a surprising lack of KPIs used at the level of the research office to monitor quality of service. Generally, research offices are held accountable for measures that reflect institutional research performance, rather than measures specific to their own delivery performance.

COVID 19 has pushed financial sustainability up the agenda

The financial sustainability of research has become a key concern for research managers. The responses we gathered to our additional COVID survey saw budgetary pressures and financial sustainability become the top challenges facing research offices. The wider issue of fundamental underinvestment in research at a government level was highlighted as one of the key drivers for this.

Regulatory burden and political instability have created additional resourcing needs. We found that these factors lead to increasing complexity and competition in the sector, which in turn drive staff recruitment in research offices. Rising expectations from major funding organisations and institutional senior management, alongside an increased emphasis on non-financial returns from research, have led to a total increase of 11% in staffing across the last three years.

What’s next for the research management profession?

Clearly, the UK higher education sector faces significant challenges, and COVID-19 isn’t the only culprit. While the times ahead are uncertain, we hope that the findings of this exercise will be a valuable resource for research managers across the country. With this comprehensive evidence base, and ARMA’s continued support for professional and community development, research managers will be well-equipped to tackle whatever the future has in store.

Read the full project outputs here.