Fin­ger on re­set but­ton

Aus­tralia faces re­search fund­ing re­think

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - [email protected]­ere­d­u­ca­

The an­nounce­ment of a ma­jor re­view of re­search by the party ex­pected to form Aus­tralia’s next gov­ern­ment has sparked spec­u­la­tion about greater sep­a­ra­tion of re­search and teach­ing fund­ing – a move that could clear the way for the cre­ation of teach­ing-only uni­ver­si­ties.

La­bor leader Bill Shorten (pic­tured in­set), who is widely tipped to be­come prime min­is­ter after a gen­eral elec­tion that must be held be­fore late May, has promised to but­tress the science com­mu­nity with a new char­ter and ad­vi­sory struc­ture, driven by a “once-in-a-gen­er­a­tion” in­quiry to align Aus­tralian re­search with in­ter­na­tional best prac­tice.

Mr Shorten has also recom­mit­ted a fu­ture La­bor gov­ern­ment to rais­ing Aus­tralian re­search and devel­op­ment spend­ing to 3 per cent of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct, up from 1.9 per cent at last count, and to de­fend science froma “cul­ture of den­i­gra­tion”. One idea that the re­view could con­sider would be greater sep­a­ra­tion of re­search and teach­ing fund­ing, likely through the re­moval of the re­search com­po­nent from com­mon­wealth grants for teach­ing. This could dove­tail with an on­go­ing gov­ern­ment re­view of provider cat­e­gory stan­dards that may rec­om­mend per­mit­ting the cre­ation of teach­ing-only uni­ver­si­ties. This is sup­ported by some as a prac­ti­cal way of re­duc­ing costs and in­creas­ing in­sti­tu­tional di­ver­sity, and op­posed by oth­ers as a slip­pery slope that could un­der­mine the Hum­bold­tian model.

Speak­ing at Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion’s World Aca­demic Sum­mit ear­lier this year, Brian Sch­midt, vice-chan­cel­lor of the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity, warned that sev­er­ing the teach­ing-re­search nexus would trig­ger a “dan­ger­ous and un­sus­tain­able” cy­cle that would lead to teach­ing be­ing “de­cou­pled from the re­search of the day”.

An­nounc­ing the re­view, Mr Shorten dis­tin­guished it from many “ad hoc” re­views that had been “quickly dis­re­garded”. The pro­posed in­quiry will as­sess the over­all sup­port frame­work for re­search and make rec­om­men­da­tions in 12 ar­eas.

These ar­eas in­clude align­ment with na­tional needs, bal­ance be­tween gov­ern­ment-iden­ti­fied pri­or­i­ties and in­ves­ti­ga­tor-led re­search, over­all “co­her­ence” of pub­lic fund­ing and pro­tec­tion of re­search in­tegrity.

Mr Shorten said that the in­quiry would be guided by the UK’s 2015 Nurse re­view of re­search fund­ing and Canada’s 2017 fun­da­men­tal science re­view. It will be un­der­taken by some of Aus­tralian higher ed­u­ca­tion’s big­gest names after former chief sci­en­tist Ian Chubb agreed to lead it.

An­other idea that La­bor could con­sider is en­cour­ag­ing the cre­ation of univer­sity-in­dus­try precincts mod­elled on the War­wick Man­u­fac­tur­ing Group, the brain­child of Lord Bhat­tacharyya, who was also on the Nurse re­view ad­vi­sory panel. Mr Shorten said that achiev­ing the 3 per cent tar­get for re­search and devel­op­ment

spend­ing would ne­ces­si­tate “strong links be­tween pri­vate in­dus­try and pub­licly funded re­search agen­cies”.

La­bor’s com­mit­ments fol­low turmoil for the re­search sec­tor, be­gin­ning with the rev­e­la­tion that former ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter Si­mon Birm­ing­ham had se­cretly ve­toed 11 grants from the 2017 Aus­tralian Re­search Coun­cil fund­ing rounds.

The gov­ern­ment re­acted to the sub­se­quent out­rage by an­nounc­ing that a “na­tional in­ter­est test” would be em­bed­ded in fu­ture fund­ing rounds, but crit­ics said that the new test would add noth­ing apart from mak­ing po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence eas­ier. Mean­while, its in­tro­duc­tion has been blamed for a de­lay in an­nounc­ing 2019 grants, which has cost some re­searchers their jobs and forced oth­ers to waste time ap­ply­ing for 2020 grants only to find that they had won fund­ing this time around.

The gov­ern­ment also in­tends to fund a rise in re­gional higher ed­u­ca­tion pro­vi­sion by freez­ing a pro­gramme that con­trib­utes to the in­di­rect costs of re­search. But many aca­demics be­lieve that the big­gest prob­lem for Aus­tralian re­search is its es­ca­lat­ing de­pen­dence on tu­ition rev­enue from in­ter­na­tional stu­dents.

Mar­garet Sheil, vice-chan­cel­lor of Queens­land Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, was the lat­est to ex­press alarm over this re­liance, de­scrib­ing it as “un­sus­tain­able”.

Pro­fes­sor Sheil, a former ARC chief ex­ec­u­tive, told THE that the pro­posed re­search in­quiry presents an op­por­tu­nity. “This is our chance to get to­gether and de­velop a nar­ra­tive that says we need dif­fer­ent mod­els of re­search in the ecosys­tem,” she said.

Sources said that La­bor’s cit­ing of the Nurse re­view and Canada’s Nay­lor re­view should be in­ter­preted as a state­ment of its in­tent to make mean­ing­ful change rather than a sign of the spe­cific changes it has in mind.

The Group of Eight, which rep­re­sents lead­ing re­search in­sti­tu­tions, wel­comed La­bor’s com­mit­ment to a “com­plete re­set” of science and re­search. Chief ex­ec­u­tive Vicki Thom­son said that she planned to meet mem­bers of the UK re­view team to “try to tease out what was suc­cess­ful and what wasn’t”.

“For the op­po­si­tion to have gath­ered peo­ple of this cal­i­bre tells us there is a prob­lem, be­cause these are busy peo­ple and they wouldn’t do it other­wise,” Ms Thom­son told THE. “If we’re to have a pos­i­tive out­come, these are the peo­ple to de­liver it.”

Cold look La­bor’s leader has promised an in­quiry to align re­search with in­ter­na­tional best prac­tice and to raise R&D spend­ing

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