Universities need a clear research mission to optimise performance

Institutions can enhance their research impact by focusing on four key factors, according to data from Nous Group

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24 Oct 2023
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Nous Group session at THE World Academic Summit 2023
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Universities facing multiple research challenges need to understand and build from the “virtuous cycle” of research performance, rankings and revenue generation, said Barbara Messerle, a principal at Nous Group, during a presentation at the 2023 THE World Academic Summit held in partnership with Nous Group.

“We have a research funding regime that is very tough,” added Messerle, who said that government funding for university research flatlined across Canada, Australia, the UK, Germany and the US from 2016 to 2020.

Messerle outlined the challenges facing the international research landscape. In addition to the competitive funding regime, there is an increasing reliance on international student revenue to subsidise research and questions surrounding research integrity and the ethics of funding sources.

A correlation exists between research success and rankings, Messerle pointed out. Higher rankings attract more international student revenue, which provides funding for research. “This is a virtuous cycle,” she said. Focusing on research and setting strategic priorities allow universities to build their reputation, which improves their performance in rankings and attracts more international students, Messerle explained.

There are four ingredients to success in this cycle, explained Zac Ashkanasy, also a principal at Nous Group. The first is an increased focus on research themes, followed by a university budget model that prioritises investment in research. The third component is aligning academic talent and culture to maximise return on investment and, finally, implementing an operating model with specialist resources throughout the institution.

Ashkanasy suggested that a university must first establish its research mission. “You need to get research depth to get research performance,” he said. “If you have people doing individual research, it might be great at a personal level but you’re less likely to get societal impact and institutional recognition.”

“If you’re efficient in your financial performance and in your teaching effort, you can then drive your purpose,” Ashkanasy said, emphasising that institutions must channel their research efforts to have at least 80 researchers working on a single theme.

As an institution, defining organisational expertise and building core competencies are crucial to success – and doing this at scale is often a challenge. “Only if you get scale and are really disciplined will you start to see the windfall benefits,” Ashkanasy said.

Ashkanasy used data from UniForum, a programme by Nous Group’s benchmarking organisation NousCubane, to outline trends in research administration spending at Australian universities. Universities are automating transactional processes and investing in providing more post-award support to high-performing researchers, the data showed. Universities are bringing in dedicated project managers to handle research administration and to amplify support for researchers.

“There are many research journeys. If you ask, ‘What’s the ideal journey for them?’, you can then build your research administration infrastructure around them,” explained Ashkanasy. “Some institutions think the only way to improve research administration is through big tech spend. But you will get better service if you can change it through thoughtful role design in the first instance.”

The panel:

  • Zac Ashkanasy, principal, Nous Group
  • Barbara Messerle, principal, Nous Group

Find out more about Nous Group.

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