Research contracts benchmarking – public report published

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Research contracts benchmarking

A new international study

We’re pleased to publish the final report from a major project looking at research contract management across 24 UK and Australian universities.

A public report has been released as the final project output and outlines the contribution made by contracts management functions to the research activity of UK and Australian universities. It also sets out the key issues and challenges facing this critical research management function.

You can also check out our infographic for a high-level overview of some of the key findings and context for the project.

This project builds on previous work by Research Consulting in 2013 (UK only) and in 2018 (UK and Australia)1.

This series of reports documents the evolving landscape of research contract management practices and trends. The 2023 project covered activity from 2018 to 2023, including the period of most acute challenges and disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the five-year study period, the 24 participating universities reported delivering over 100,000 new contracts. Many topics fell within the broad scope of this work: staffing levels and experience; research income and contract volumes; remits; recruitment and retention; training; complexity; structures; metrics, reporting and systems; external litigation or arbitration and sign-off protocols.

19 UK universities and 5 Australian universities participated, and their research incomes ranged from under £2m (A$3.6m) to over £500m (A$954m).

Participation in the project involved:

  • a specialist benchmarking exercise consisting of an online questionnaire which addressed team structure, size, skills, remit, contract volume and workload, legal and governance considerations, and use of systems and metrics for reporting;
  • a bespoke institutional performance report and supporting analysis;
  • a one-to-one consultation with our team to discuss the institutional context and performance; and
  • attendance at an in-person good practice sharing event (UK participants only) and a virtual workshop (for Australian participants).

Participants had a range of roles at different levels in institutions, including Directors of Research Offices, Heads of Contract teams, contracts managers and legal services managers.

Below are some of the key features and findings from the 2023 project and findings:

The Universities

  • 22,465 new research contracts were delivered by 240 full-time equivalent (FTE) research contracts staff in the final year of the study period.
  • Smaller institutions typically spend a higher proportion of their research income on their contracts function: averaging 1.7% for institutions with research incomes under £20m (A$36m) and 0.4% for incomes over £100m (A$180m).
  • Institutions with smaller research incomes are typically dealing with a wider range of agreement types, bringing additional complexity.
  • Average cost per contract appears higher in Australia (£805 (A$1,445)) than in the UK (£536 (A$962)), due to higher salaries.
  • Workload: the average was ~100 contracts per FTE per annum, and this measure typically ranged between 80 and 120.

People, Systems and Processes

  • Recruitment and retention are key issues: two-thirds of institutions report using temporary staff; hybrid working is common.
  • Contracts officers and managers remain the backbone of the contracts function, with over half of FTEs at these role levels.
  • Compared to 2018, salaries have increased slightly in the UK (but below inflation). Growth appears higher in Australia and above inflation.
  • 50% of participating institutions use a research information management system to support research contracts management: a notable increase since 2018.
  • There is now widespread adoption of e-signatures, operational at 80% of participating institutions. This is a major change since 2018.
  • Quantifying risks: just over one in 10,000 contracts resulted in external arbitration or litigation over the five years covered and 75% of participating institutions reported no experience of this in the period.

Issues and Challenges

  • Over the period the volume of contracts increased by 8% for Australian and 6% for UK universities.
  • There have been notable increases in volume in some contract types: data agreements: over 70%, material transfer agreements: 19%. Amendments, extensions and novations are up 58% in the period, with a big increase in 2020, as the COVID pandemic began.
  • Data agreements, multilateral collaboration agreements, export licence applications and foreign influence / interference agreements (Australia) are perceived to have increased significantly in complexity.

Future Considerations

In 2018, we identified e-signature as a big area for potential improvement, without ever anticipating how a global pandemic would catalyse increased adoption.

Now, as we look forward to the next few years of rapid change, we’ve identified other areas for potential development:

  • Addressing a challenging recruitment and retention landscape;
  • Realising opportunities to enhance training for research contracts management through regional or collaborative approaches; and
  • Enhancing awareness of practical benefits to support the use and adoption of technologies (including AI) which can assist in contracts work.

Research contracts Management 2023
1Full outputs from 2013 and 2018 are available on this GrowKudos page: https://www.growkudos.com/projects/enhancing-practice-in-research-contracts and outputs from 2023 are also available there.

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