Strong inequalities in the Commonwealth’s research ecosystems


High inequalities persist in higher education research ecosystems across the Commonwealth countries, with a new report revealing significant disparities in access to funding, research support systems and gender equity between universities in richer and lower-income countries.

The snapshot report was released by the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) for its members on February 14, 2023, and follows the first ACU Measures Supporting Research Survey, an online benchmarking service that gathered evidence from 95 universities in 29 countries across ( British) Commonwealth raised lands.

It found that universities in low-income Commonwealth countries spend more than twice as much institutional income on research support than their counterparts in high-income countries and receive 50% less income from industry collaborations.

Lack of government funding

European respondents were the only participating institutions to report having received funding for research from their national governments. In contrast, 17% of African institutions reported receiving no government research funding at all.

More than half (54%) of research budgets in higher-income countries were funded by external grant income, and 88% of all registered research grant applications were submitted by the same institutions – at a rate of more than 1,000 applications per institution. In comparison, the average number for institutions in the least developed countries was only 44.

The survey also found significant disparities in support for researchers and research administration staff within ACU membership.

For example, 40% of African respondents indicated a lack of guidelines for university research costs such as overheads, affecting their ability to adequately cover the full economic costs of any research undertaken.

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imbalances between the sexes

The survey also highlighted a persistent gender imbalance in academic appointments, with male staff outnumbering their female colleagues and accounting for 57% of the academic population.

The survey showed that the number of female PhD students was skewed towards wealthier Commonwealth countries, where the proportion of female PhD students was 51%, compared to 21% in lower-income countries.

“Taken together, these disparities represent a major obstacle to achieving inclusive and equitable access to higher education by 2030 – a goal of the Sustainable Development Goal [SDG] 4,” the report says.

However, the survey showed that the United Nations SDGs and the local environment are key priorities of institutional research strategies for an overwhelming majority of universities.

Of the 95 ACU universities surveyed, 93% acknowledged the existence of an institution-wide research strategy, and of these, 78% identified the SDGs or the local environment—water, energy, agriculture, and the like—as key priorities for organizing research at the institution.

Insight into different approaches

Professor Paul Ivey, Associate Vice President of Graduate Studies, Research and Entrepreneurship at the University of Technology, Jamaica, told University World News: “The ACU Measures Supporting Research Survey provides an exceptional insight into the research funding landscape and reflects both the scale of university research on activities and the types of institutional resources used in different phases of the research lifecycle.

“By participating in ACU activities, we have gained significant insight into diverse research approaches in a variety of institutional and geographic contexts across the Commonwealth.”

He said the survey results “represent a unique opportunity for the global higher education sector to meaningfully share expertise and learn from one another in an anonymous and non-competitive manner” and are “extremely useful for making evidence-based decisions”. .

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The report found that grant application support and grant administration systems were unevenly distributed across ACU members, with 97% of institutions in higher-income countries having access to electronic systems and databases, compared to just 43% in lower-income countries .

Publications are the engine of advertising

The survey results showed that the number of research publications is the most important factor in academic advancement, with 95% of respondents citing “the number and quality of peer-reviewed publications as the most important indicator of the success of their research functions”.

This indicator is higher than creating a positive social benefit or achieving a declared impact, according to the survey.

“Around 50% of those surveyed indicated that the translation of research into sustainable results, such as B. socio-economic or political benefits, was one of the main challenges for them,” the results say.

The survey found that in the year leading up to the survey, ACU members formed more than 7,000 university-industry partnerships and academic staff provided more than 2,500 consulting services. “Such partnerships provide a mutually beneficial mechanism to drive research and innovation both inside and outside the university.”

ACU members produced more than 13,000 new PhD graduates in the academic year leading up to the conclusion of ACU’s operations, with the report stating that the majority of higher education institutions are committed to continuing to grow their postgraduate population.

A third of respondents identified increasing PhD numbers as a key area for future financial investments.

Variations in Research Support Mechanisms

The survey found significant variation in the type and scope of institutional research support mechanisms available to academic and research management personnel within ACU membership.

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While all institutions facilitate training and workshops for academic staff at some level, the report highlighted the “disparity in the provision of dedicated support and academic mentoring programs to early career researchers across the regions”.

Commenting on the Supporting Research survey, William Bramwell, ACU Senior Research Officer, said, “The results highlight long-standing differences that continue to shape the broader research and research funding landscape, as well as the varied ways in which ACU members navigate and respond to all regions.

“We look forward to building on the success of this first survey and continuing to provide our members with unparalleled industry insight and knowledge to help strengthen research capacities around the world.”

* ACU has more than 500 members in 50 Commonwealth countries. For more information on the ACU Measures benchmarking service, follow this link.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specializing in European and international higher education. He blogs at