Australia’s underfunding of research is a national security issue

The Universities Accord’s call for full funding is vital to avoid over-reliance on hazardous overseas relationships, says Brendan Walker-Munro

June 3, 2024
A man hands out Australian dollars
Source: iStock/MultifacetedGirl

The Albanese government seems to be in a spending mood for high technology. It has recently announced A$1 billion for the construction of a facility to build quantum computers in Brisbane. Another $1.4 billion over 13 years from 2024-25 will be offered through the Medical Research Future Fund. And A$22.7 billion has been set aside over the next decade for its new Future Made in Australia green technology initiative.

Universities will play a massive role within those schemes. The trouble is that every bit of research they do will result in a financial loss to them.

Competitive research grants don’t actually cover the real cost of doing research, forcing universities to make up the gap. Indeed, unlike any other developed economy, Australian universities actually spend more on research than the government does. And the way they afford that, of course, is international student fees.

Across the sector and depending on the study, anywhere between 25 per cent and 50 per cent of all research at Australian universities is funded this way. So the more research you do, the more you need international students – which is why international numbers are particularly high in Group of Eight universities, which carry out 70 per cent of university research in Australia. The University of Queensland, for instance, earns 75 per cent of its total student income from international students.

But there are several major problems with this funding mechanism. First, any threat to the flow of international students – such as the Covid-19 pandemic, domestic immigration policy or changes in foreign governments’ recognition of Australian degrees – poses a significant risk to university research solvency.

There are also adverse side effects of dependence on overseas income. When Australia tried to capitalise on Indian students, for instance, we got taken for a ride, with widespread allegations of visa fraud and “course hopping” by unscrupulous providers and students. Even more seriously, overseas students represent potential risks to national security, and universities can enter into international collaborations that can present risks that the technology, ideas and data generated could be diverted for nefarious purposes, such as weapons or cybersecurity.

The caps on international students being introduced by the current government are not the solution because they could push overseas students into regional universities, which may lack the national security resources of their larger cousins. Indeed, we in Australia don’t even really recognise security as part of the research equation as things stand, mostly leaving it to individual university researchers to identify such national security risks in their work – resulting in everything from collaboration with sanctioned regimes to the potential dissemination of research for military use.

Australia needs something like Canada’s C$125 million Research Support Fund, which builds resilience and security measures into university research; the more research funding a university receives, the more research security is subsidised. But the only way to fundamentally break universities’ dependence on potentially hostile foreign powers is to properly fund their research activities.

Everybody, from the Group of Eight itself to Nobel Laureate and former Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt has called for this. The final report of the Universities Accord – which education minister Jason Clare called a “blueprint for the next decade and beyond” – says that “fully funded university research is a crucial objective for Australia’s universities”. In particular, the Accord calls for “universities [to] charge and government and industry [to] pay” the full cost of doing research in this country.

That is going to cost this government – or the next one – a pretty penny, given cutting existing research funding is not a viable option. But whether that means a sovereign investment fund for university research, or incentivising revenue streams from within Australia or our close allies, the government needs to find the money somehow.

Otherwise, the significant and long-term economic benefits that research offers to productivity can only be realised at the cost of national security risks, wrangles over immigration settings and the reduction of universities from institutions that pursue and share knowledge as a public good to establishments that sell qualifications simply to exist.

Brendan Walker-Munro is senior lecturer in law at Southern Cross University. This article expresses only his personal view.

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