Australian v-cs explore ‘alternative models’ of research funding

Sector leaders drafted to help solve loss of cross-subsidies from both international and domestic teaching

June 30, 2020
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Australia’s government has enlisted a working group of vice-chancellors to chart a future for university research as it confronts a multibillion-dollar hit to its funding base.

Education minister Dan Tehan said that the group, to be chaired by Curtin University head Deborah Terry, would explore “alternative models” of research funding after the pandemic exposed its dependence on revenue from international students.

“The working group will look at the research pipeline in the higher education system to frame the issue and take initial soundings of possible directions,” he said.

Also in the group are Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Margaret Sheil, the University of Melbourne’s Duncan Maskell, UNSW Sydney’s Ian Jacobs, the University of Tasmania’s Rufus Black, Charles Darwin University’s Simon Maddocks, Monash University’s Margaret Gardner and the University of Technology Sydney’s Attila Brungs.

They will grapple with the challenges posed by border closures necessitated by the coronavirus. The sector faces an estimated A$5 billion (£2.8 billion) shortfall this year, with next year expected to be worse.

Modelling by Australian National University (ANU) policy expert Andrew Norton suggests that profits from university teaching bankroll research to the tune of about A$4.7 billion a year, with about A$3.3 billion of it coming from international students.

Mr Tehan has said that he wants to work with the sector on “improved prudential requirements” to guard against future disruptions. “One of the key challenges in a post-Covid economy will be to provide a sustainable pipeline of funding for research,” he told the National Press Club on 19 June.

However, proposals unveiled that day, which would bring funding for teaching domestic students in line with course delivery costs, pose a further threat to research.

The plans would almost erase universities’ surplus earnings from teaching Australian students – currently about 10 per cent, on average – leaving even less money to cross-subsidise research.

Writing in The Conversation, Professor Norton says that profits from teaching are the only way universities can finance research at its current scale. “We are at a turning point…the research gains of the last 15 years are at risk of being reversed,” he warns.

Options to avert this appear limited. One possibility is that the government will bring research funding in line with costs, as it has done with teaching.

Australian research grants cover considerably less of the indirect costs – such as principal researchers’ salaries, power, insurance, infrastructure and equipment – than in the UK, where research councils fund about 75 per cent of the full costs of research.

Adopting a similar approach in Australia would mean that fewer projects could be supported, triggering inevitable arguments over how to allocate the money. Convening a working group of vice-chancellors could be a way of addressing such disputes proactively.

Another possibility is that the government could create an endowment for translational research modelled on the A$20 billion Medical Research Future Fund. But Canberra’s capacity to finance such an initiative is limited as it reels from the economic shockwaves of Covid-19.

The government has also established a working group of vice-chancellors to help design Mr Tehan’s proposed A$900 million National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund, devised to encourage engagement between higher education and STEM industry businesses.

The group will be chaired by Professor Brungs and will include Professor Terry, the University of Newcastle’s Alex Zelinsky, ANU’s Brian Schmidt, Federation University’s Helen Bartlett, the University of South Australia’s David Lloyd, Western Sydney University’s Barney Glover and Murdoch University’s Eeva Leinonen.

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