A capital idea for learning

August 13, 1999

In the third of our series on research in the southern hemisphere, Julia Hinde examines the work of the Canberra-based Australian National University - a major contributor to regional science - whose unique funding formula is under threat.

"This is really two universities," says Bob Dixon, of Canberra's Australian National University, where he has worked for the past 30 years. Unique among Australia's 37 public universities, the ANU is an institute of two sides: an undergraduate teaching arm - the faculties, where lecturers teach, research and do administration; and the Institute of Advanced Studies, a separate enclave of almost 700 academics who devote their lives to basic research and research training, with no undergraduate teaching commitments.

Unlike the faculties, members of the Institute of Advanced Studies are not - at least at the moment - reliant on competitively won grants for research funding. Rather, the nine schools receive an annual block grant for research. The two sides may share a vice-chancellor, a campus and a name, but they rarely share buildings and individual allegiances are strong.

ANU's present structure is a result of its short history, a past that has been as centrally planned as the city that surrounds it. Canberra, the capital - not much bigger than a small market town when federal government first arrived in 19, and today with just 300,000 residents, 20 per cent of whom are government employees - was deemed to require a university on the arrival of government, so a college of the University of Melbourne, Canberra University College, was opened.

But it was not until the aftermath of the second world war that the ANU began to take shape. In the period of postwar reconstruction, it was decided that Australia needed a basic research facility to bring it to the forefront of world research. Until then, promising students had moved abroad for PhDs. The first Australian PhD was awarded in the late 1940s, but if Australia was going to attract back its best scientists, it was decided that it needed its own dedicated centre for research and research training. Hence the Institute of Advanced Studies was established 53 years ago, funded, unlike any other institution, by a central block grant.

Canberra University College and the Institute were merged in 1960 to form the two arms of today's ANU. However, the funding remained separate - the faculties compete for Australian Research Council grants and are funded on the basis of student numbers, while the institute continues to enjoy its block grant. The two parts, however, are drawing closer. Institute staff, for example, often lecture undergraduates on faculty request. But it may be the recent research green paper that finally brings the two together.

Published in June, the green paper has bred uncertainty over the fate of ANU's block grant. Many in the university acknowledge that the government's drive towards increased competition may result in the institute's block grant being reduced and in its place, competitive grants being opened up to institute academics.

There is little doubt that since the institute's conception in 1946, the Australian research scene has changed. Many universities now offer highly rated PhDs, the country's research capabilities - in basic and applied research - are, in some fields, at the forefront globally, while Australia keeps and attracts back many of its academics.

So, is a block-funded research institute an anachronism a century after federation? Not according to Deane Terrell, vice-chancellor of the ANU. "If all research funding becomes contestable, people will be reliant on five-year grants," he says.

"In our research school, one in three staff are long-term appointments with continuous employment. Two-thirds are five-year appointments. This gives us the chance for a long-term agenda and long-term vision, while the throughput creates vibrancy. Not all countries have that long-term planning ability in research," he says.

Hank Nelson, acting director of the institute, agrees: "It was an act of courage to set up a national research institute in these paddocks," he says. "And I think Australia still needs it." He says the block grant gives the institute the ability to plan future research with confidence. "There is a lot of research that would not get done if this institute did not exist," he says. "This is particularly true of a lot of the basic and pure research, and research in the social sciences."

Professor Nelson is a member of ANU's Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, created as part of the institute in the aftermath of the war. "After Pearl Harbor, Australian eyes shifted north and they have never really moved away from that," explains Professor Nelson. "Australia knew she had to survive in her own region, but we didn't even have accurate maps. The research school came from that."

The School of Pacific and Asian Studies is one of the few centres worldwide with a concentrated research effort in this region. Academics learn the languages of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and become experts in local politics and culture. "If we did not do this research, it would not be done," explains Professor Nelson. "It would be hard to fund through competitive grants. The investment for someone to become fluent in a local language and to understand local customs is at least six years."

The school's academics have used their expertise in practical ways: a lawyer in the school who speaks Tok Pisin (a Papua New Guinea language) was able to bring together the warring sides in Bougainville to help bring to a close ten years of war.

"If you always have to apply for competitive grants it means you are tailoring your research to getting funds," he says. "But if you know you will get money, it allows you to direct your research. At universities today, the teaching load is very high. Lecturers have to be consistently nurturing their teaching and making sure their numbers are up, because funding is so dependent on teaching numbers. So it is difficult for them to put too much effort into research. This institute is in a very privileged position."

A century after Australian federation, academics at ANU are looking back to Europe, to where many modern Australians trace their ancestry, to establish Australia's first centre for European Studies. The proposed research centre, to be housed at ANU, would be funded by the European Union and the ANU. The university has allocated a building for the centre. A final decision is expected later this year.

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