Labor inquiry offers opportunity to ‘reset’ Australian research

Move by party tipped to form next government triggers speculation over creation of teaching-only universities

December 6, 2018
Researcher examines tiger shark
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Cold look: Labor’s leader has promised an inquiry to align research with international best practice and to raise R&D spending

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, 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 from a “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 in which teaching would eventually become “completely decoupled from the research of the day”.

Announcing the review, Mr Shorten distinguished his inquiry from numerous “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 sustained 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 considerable time applying for 2020 grants, only to discover that they had been successful this time around.

The government also intends to fund an increase 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 in early December 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 here, because these are busy people and they wouldn’t do it otherwise,” Ms Thomson told THE. “If we’re going to have a positive outcome, these are the people to deliver it.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Inquiry pledge offers chance to ‘reset’ research

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