Stark inequalities across Commonwealth research ecosystems

Stark inequalities exist in the higher education research ecosystems across 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 nations.

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

It found that universities in lower-income Commonwealth countries committed more than double the amount of institutional income to supporting research 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 reporting receiving some funding from their national governments for research. By contrast, 17% of African institutions reported receiving no government funding at all for research.

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

The survey also revealed significant disparities in support for researchers and research administration support staff across the ACU membership.

For instance, 40% of African respondents indicated a lack of policies guiding university research costings, such as overheads, thereby impacting on their ability to adequately recover the full economic costs of any research undertaken.

Gender imbalances

A persisting gender imbalance in academic appointments was also highlighted in the survey, with male staff outnumbering their female counterparts and making up 57% of the academic population.

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

“Together, these divides represent a major obstacle in the drive for inclusive and equitable access to higher education by 2030 – a target of Sustainable Development Goal [SDG] 4,” said the report.

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

Among the 95 ACU universities surveyed, 93% confirmed the existence of an institution-wide research strategy and of those, 78% identified the SDGs or local environment – water, energy, agriculture and the like – as key priorities for organising research at the institutional level.

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 exceptional insight into the research funding landscape, revealing both the scale of university research activities and the types of institutional resource deployed at various stages across the research lifecycle.

“By taking part in ACU Measures we have gained huge insight into different research approaches in a variety of institutional and geographical 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 way” and will be “extremely useful to inform evidence-based decision-making”.

The report found that that systems for supporting grant applications and grant management were unevenly distributed across the ACU membership, with 97% of institutions in higher-income countries having access to electronic systems and databases compared with only 43% in lower-income countries.

Publications are the driver for promotion

The survey results showed that research publication figures are the primary driver of academic promotion, with 95% of respondents citing “the number and quality of peer-reviewed publications as the most important indicator of success of their research functions”.

This indicator is higher than creating a positive social benefit or achieving stated impact, the survey found.

“Around 50% of respondents stated that translating research into sustainable outputs, such as socio-economic or policy benefits, was one of the greatest challenges they faced,” according to the findings.

The survey showed that ACU members secured more than 7,000 university-industry partnerships and academic staff undertook more than 2,500 consultancies in the year prior to the survey. “Such partnerships provide a mutually beneficial mechanism for driving research and innovation both within and beyond the university.”

ACU members produced more than 13,000 new PhD graduates in the academic year prior to completing ACU Measures, with the report saying the majority of higher education institutions are seeking to grow their postgraduate populations further.

One third of respondents identified increasing PhD numbers as a key area for future financial investment.

Variations in research support mechanisms

The survey found significant variations in the types and extent of institutional research support mechanisms available for academic and research management staff across the ACU membership.

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

Commenting on the Supporting Research survey, William Bramwell, ACU’s senior research officer, said: “The findings highlight long-standing disparities that continue to shape the wider research and research funding landscape, as well as the different ways in which ACU members navigate and respond to these across all regions.

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

* ACU has more than 500 members spread across 50 countries in the Commonwealth. For more information about the ACU Measures benchmarking service, see this link.

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