Australian representative groups lock horns over research funding

While few dispute the need to increase the quantum, opinions differ over how to share the spoils

April 12, 2023
Wrestlers locked together symbolising pushback on university boards
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Research funding has emerged as the main policy battleground for Australian university networks, as competing visions and vested interests frame contradictory reform prescriptions for the sector.

In a submission to the Australian Universities Accord, the Group of Eight (Go8) has proposed that a “necessary small number” of institutions be deemed “federal research-intensive universities” and given the responsibility to “strategically coordinate research capability with critical mass”.

The selected few would attract dedicated funding to undertake nationally important research, doling out money to other institutions – particularly those recognised as “centres of research excellence in particular areas” – in a “hub and spokes style collaboration with the rest of the university system”.

While the other institutions would retain the right to compete for project-based research grants, they would primarily be “funded on the basis of their specific specialty” – which could include “undergraduate training and development”.

The Go8 says this arrangement would produce a “more differentiated” higher education system distinguished by “a certain number of globally leading” institutions. “The nation cannot afford to have its research investment stretched too thinly,” the submission warns.

Groups representing less prestigious universities have “firmly” rejected such an approach, with the Regional Universities Network (RUN) insisting that its members must remain “comprehensive research-active universities”.

RUN’s submission says any move towards “teaching only” institutions would deprive rural students of “research-informed” education while removing the only “viable” partners for regional businesses that want help with “on-the-ground innovation”.

The Innovative Research Universities (IRU), which mostly represents institutions founded in the 1960s and 1970s, advocates “equity” in research funding. Its submission highlights “shifts in the balance of investment” since the early 2000s.

“If these trends continue unchecked, the research system will be unbalanced and incapable of delivering the sovereign capabilities and innovation that Australian communities will require.”

The Australian Technology Network (ATN), whose members were mostly gazetted as universities in the 1980s and 1990s, recommends “a pool of funds” to help newer institutions cover the indirect costs of research or to meet “matched funding” requirements from grant providers.

“Major differences in the ability of universities to meet these requirements…contributes to the concentration of research in older universities,” the ATN says.

Submissions responding to the accord’s discussion paper have flooded in ahead of the 11 April deadline. They are primarily concerned with the quantum of research funding rather than how it is shared, with most saying investment in research and development must be raised significantly.

The submissions also offer widespread backing for more funding of the indirect costs of research, and for secure funding of key research infrastructure.

While the Go8 supports such moves, it says systematic concentration of research funding would merely formalise what is already happening anyway.

Its submission says eight institutions funnel 45 per cent or more of their spending into research, and eight earned “above or well above world standard” ratings in at least 50 disciplines in the most recent Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) assessment. While it does not identify these institutions, Go8 members were the only universities to attract band 4 or 5 ERA ratings in 50 or more disciplines.

The submissions have emerged as the higher education regulator Teqsa embarks on a new round of university reaccreditation. To maintain their status as universities, they must conduct research of “world standard” quality in at least half the broad fields of education they teach.

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