Transforming research administration 

The front elevation of UCL’s Portico building

The Context

University College London (UCL) is a world- leading university, this year ranked fourth in the UK and eighth in the world, and one of the few that specialises both in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) and Medical Sciences.

A valued research institute, UCL’s research income has grown every year over the past decade making it one of the largest recipients of research funding in Britain. This has naturally led to an increase in research activity: this change, along with others including a merger with the Institute of Education in 2014, has had an impact on UCL’s offering.

As a complex organisation with eleven faculties, over 100 academic departments, a multi-disciplinary approach to research and innovation, and a highly diverse research community, every innovation at UCL needs to be carefully planned and managed.

The Challenge

Research has evolved, with a shift in focus from theoretical to real world problems. At the same time, its complexity has grown: it’s now a collaborative process involving multiple partners, sponsors and countries.

On top of that, funders want increasing levels of assurance about how their money is being used. So the risks are greater, processes more complicated, and teams operate under greater scrutiny.

All of this places additional expectations on the already highly-skilled and technically adept administrative support universities offer to their research communities, requiring them to grow even greater expertise, capacity and service levels.

It’s a challenging mix, and it’s taking place in a context of further challenge. External factors including the Augar Review and Brexit means that UCL’s traditional teaching and research funding is at risk.

Looking out into the sector was not providing answers. UCL found that their experience was duplicated across other institutions globally, and the sector did not have a sense of what a ‘best practice’ response would be.

So how could UCL sustain its world leading position as a research institution, maintain the standards of support required to facilitate this, and tap into the necessary funding to sustain this in an increasingly competitive, demanding and challenged market?

The Brief

After years of growing pressure, the internal administrative support which enables UCL’s world class research work was stretched to breaking point. Complaints about poor service were coming in daily to the Chief Operating Officer. UCL was facing strategic risks caused by administrative issues.

Everyone agreed change was needed. But no one could agree what was wrong, or what to do about it.

That’s where we came in. UCL invited Social Origin to uncover the root cause of the issues, and identify opportunities to transform the current administrative support.


  1. Identify the causes of dissatisfaction amongst the research community.
  2. Understand the current researcher experience across the research lifecycle.
  3. Identify what level of administrative support is necessary to support world class research.
  4. Build consensus amongst the research community about what was wrong and why.

Our Approach

Our project fitted neatly into UCL’s transformation programme, TOPS and as our start point, following the Social Origin method, we initiated a Discovery. This was designed to uncover the needs and current experience of the research community.

We dug deep into the university, working to understand the staff experience across a diverse range of disciplines from research groups evaluating educational systems through to cutting edge biomedical innovations.

Activities within the Discovery stage included:

  1. Community engagement and understanding the current context.
  2. Conducting research with researchers and professional services staff.
  3. Mapping the research community’s experience.
  4. Understanding the systemic factors that influence research communities.
  5. Reviewing how the institution structured and managed its administrative support. 6. Collaboratively reviewing and prioritising our findings with academic and professional service leaders.


This thorough Discovery stage allowed us to gain a rich understanding of UCL’s research community. Not just this, but our review of the administrative support offered to researchers revealed the underlying causes of poor experience as well as allowing senior leaders to open up about their concerns.

With these insights, we told the story of what it was like to be an academic researcher at UCL, acknowledging the systemic factors that affected their experience, and ensuring that they knew their voices had been heard.

This came to life in showcases and engagement with UCL’s project board, allowing consensus to grow about what was wrong and why. The process provided a common, safe language for people to use, defusing tensions, fueling improvements and demonstrating that the concerns of the community had been recognised. This was summed up by one professor who said:

I felt you have really captured my experience

As a final step, we collaborated with the TOPS programme to scope out further work to explore transformation opportunities. This resulted in an extraordinary half-million pound investment into service transformation.


Our Discovery resulted in:

  1. Consensus between academic and professional service leaders for the first time.
  2. £500k investment to explore the transformation opportunities we identified.

Ongoing outcomes include:

  1. Continued investment exceeding £1m – a significant figure in a university.
  2. New Executive Director recruited, blending research and innovation operations.
  3. New combined Research and Innovation Services division.
  4. Pilot innovation service, providing institutional support to departments developing partnerships with industry.