Analysing 'High Performance' Research Units in Higher Education


Dec 4, 2015

Group of academics working together

Photo by Ammentorp/Fotolia

This commentary originally appeared on Open Forum Events on December 3, 2015.

The higher education sector in the UK covers a diverse range of disciplines, and departments and institutions use different models to produce a balance of research and teaching. However, there is limited evidence of what “high performance” looks like in an academic context.

In 2014, the UK Higher Education Funding Bodies released the results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which assessed disciplines on the academic outputs of research (such as publishing peer-reviewed articles), the wider societal impact of their research, and the research environment fostered. RAND Europe and the Policy Institute at King's College London, evaluated the impact element of REF 2014 and made a number of recommendations detailing notable practices and areas for reflection. Our analysis of high performance was based on two components of this assessment, outputs and impacts.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England recently commissioned the Policy Institute at King's College London and RAND Europe to examine the common characteristics of high-performing research units in the UK, exploring common themes and processes within these departments. By conducting interviews with departmental and institutional leaders, using data collected by the higher education sector and reviewing existing literature, we found a number of recurring themes in high-performing research environments.

Conceptual model of characteristics of high-performing research units

Characteristics of high-performing research units

Research showed that two characteristics are central to high performance. First and most importantly, people—as in recruiting and retaining the best. Our analysis suggests that a certain staff mix is associated with high performance, for instance, a staff that are research trained (and hold doctorates), who are senior (with professorial positions), who have international experience and whose salaries are funded by external sources.

The second factor linked with a high-performing research unit is the culture and values within the department, coupled with the leadership displayed. Every high-performance research unit in our study had a degree of earned or accountable autonomy—meaning they were allowed some independence partly because their success was recognised as being the result of the strong leadership and research culture of the unit.

The three other characteristics that allow people and leadership to thrive in research units are depicted in the outer circle of the model diagrammed above. They are the integral role of collaboration and networks, the importance of coherent strategy and diverse funding sources, and support provided for institutional and departmental practices.

We cannot say whether these characteristics cause high performance or are a result of it. However, the results of this study raise interesting questions for research policy and funding in learning from successful cases. They include the level of financial support provided at different stages of a researcher's career, the diversity of employees and the type of culture enabled.

Catriona Manville is a senior analyst at RAND Europe.