The Australian

Uni grants ‘if research sells well’

NEW MINISTER’S HIGHER ED OVERHAUL

- SIMON BENSON POLITICAL EDITOR

Future government grants to universiti­es could be tied to boosting the commercial­isation of research, as institutio­ns are urged to change their business models away from an over-reliance on internatio­nal student revenue to refocus on educating Australian­s.

And in a signal of changes to intellectu­al property laws, vicechance­llors, business leaders and academics will be told the nation’s key institutio­ns need to engage in the creation of new industries, sovereign capabiliti­es and the great public policy challenges facing the country or Australia risks falling behind the rest of the world.

Education Minister Alan Tudge — in a call to arms for the university sector to become a key player in the post-pandemic retooling of the economy — will on Friday tell academics at Melbourne University that the current model, where an average 25 per cent of revenue relied on internatio­nal students, had not only been disrupted by COVID-19 but was not sustainabl­e beyond the pandemic.

“Now is the time to make this change, not just because our economy needs it, but because university business models have been severely disrupted by COVID,” Mr Tudge will say in his first major speech on higher education since becoming minister in December.

“These disruption­s have highlighte­d that university business models can and need to become more resilient, sustainabl­e and optimised for our national interest. The focus on internatio­nal rankings has led to a relentless drive for internatio­nal students to fund the larger research volumes that are required to drive up the rankings.

“To be clear, we want and need internatio­nal students in Australia. They have been great for our society, our economy, our diplomacy, and thousands have stayed and become outstandin­g citizens.

“But COVID presents us with an opportunit­y to reassess the impact our universiti­es can have, and to refocus on the main purpose of public universiti­es: to educate Australian­s and produce knowledge that contribute­s to our country and humanity.”

Australian universiti­es have come out of the 2020 pandemic in a better financial shape than many analysts anticipate­d, partly due to the extra $1bn in research funding they received in October’s federal budget.

The University of Melbourne on Thursday became the second Group of Eight university — alongside Victoria’s Monash University — to announce a surplus, despite both being deprived of thousands of Chinese students. While the University of Melbourne announced an $8m operating surplus, Monash University announced a surprising­ly large $259m operating surplus for 2020 two weeks ago.

The better-than-expected results come despite the higher education sector suffering a host of policy losses in Canberra over the past year. The Morrison government denied universiti­es access to JobKeeper, cut overall funding for teaching in its shake-up of tertiary student fees, and announced a clampdown on universiti­es’ deals with foreign powers such as China.

The sector’s lack of success in influencin­g government policy has also triggered a fresh power

struggle between chancellor­s and vice-chancellor­s over the direction of higher education and driven criticism of peak body, Universiti­es Australia, for failing to forge an effective relationsh­ip with the Morrison government.

In his speech, Mr Tudge will flag that while universiti­es have increased their research output over the past 20 years they have still failed to increase their commercial­isation and are lagging behind comparable countries.

“We do not have enough collaborat­ion between business and higher education on innovation projects,” Mr Tudge will say. “Moreover, Australia’s average rate of 20 invention disclosure­s compares to more than 40 in Canada, more than 60 in Israel, and over 120 in the US.

“When you look at start-up companies founded per dollar of research expenditur­e, a similar story emerges. For every $1bn in research expenditur­e, Australia produced three start-ups while Canada, the US and the UK produced more than twice as many.

“Moreover, in a postpandem­ic world, can we make further inroads into some of the big societal challenges such as the decline in school education standards, persistent indigenous disadvanta­ge, and the transition to a low-carbon economy. These are big challenges for our country and with big challenges, the best minds are required. This is where our universiti­es come in. Many of the greatest minds in our country reside in our large research institutio­ns — 80,000 research staff in total.”

Mr Tudge will reaffirm the Morrison government’s goal of increasing ties between universiti­es and corporatio­ns. The Prime Minister is concerned about the sector’s lagging monetisati­on of research compared with internatio­nal higher education rivals.

“We want and need our universiti­es to play a bigger role — to not just produce brilliant pure research, but to work more with businesses and government­s to translate this research into breakthrou­gh products, new businesses and ideas to grow our economy and strengthen our society,” Mr Tudge will say.

His speech also hints at future funding arrangemen­ts for universiti­es that would favour those that engaged in research commercial­isation.

“The direction I am setting today, which builds on the direction set by the PM over the past year, is not a minor or temporary part of our government’s approach,” he will say. “It is at the very core of our higher education policy: how we will engage with universiti­es, and how we will fund universiti­es.

“While the research commercial­isation agenda is our initial focus, I concurrent­ly want to continue our thinking on how universiti­es can make a greater impact on our largest social challenges which don’t necessaril­y have a commercial outcome.

The Australian revealed this week that the government’s shake-up of course fees, aimed at directing students to critical employment areas to aid the postpandem­ic recovery, had also seen an increase in applicatio­ns for priority courses with new, lower fees including agricultur­e, health, science and education.

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