Have grant, will travel

July 9, 1999

Australian government proposals for portable research scholarships have the academic community up in arms. Geoff Maslen reports.

Acontroversial shake-up of Australia's research funding system will force the nation's universities to compete more vigorously with each other for students and for a slice of the Aus$1.1 billion (Pounds 468.2 million) allocated annually to research.

The federal government's long-awaited green paper on research, New Knowledge, New Opportunities, proposes giving postgraduate students greater choice about where they study by providing them with portable scholarships.

The paper says this will create a powerful "incentive for excellence" among the competing institutions.

Under the proposed changes, universities will be required to forge stronger links with industry while the present system of apportioning research monies will be radically altered.

The Australian Research Council - the biggest distributor of government grants - will be given a greater role and a restructured governing body with a broader membership. Most of the current array of special research grants will be combined into a single national competitive scheme managed by the ARC.

"Block funds" will be allocated by the ARC to individual institutions using two broad measures: the university's share of research student places, which will count for 60 per cent, and the proportion of total research-related income earned from all sources, including consultancies and money raised from industry.

The paper points to the quality of research training as a key issue. It says that more than $600 million of public money will be spent on teaching postgraduate research students next year - yet many of the best graduates become frustrated and dissatisfied with the quality of their research training experience.

It argues that the new system of tuition-free portable scholarships will give Australia's brightest young researchers the opportunity to select the best institutions for their critical training years. This will provide "a powerful incentive for excellence in these environments".

The discussion document will form the basis for the government's final decisions in a white paper later. That, in turn, will be followed by a reform plan on how public funding of universities is to occur in future, which observers believe will set out the next stage of the government's plans for a market-driven, more accountable higher education system.

Federal education minister David Kemp said greater efforts by universities to involve industry in their research would prevent Australia losing many of its top researchers overseas. "For too long many of Australia's best ideas have gone offshore to be developed by others. The reforms will help to build an entrepreneurial climate for Australian science and research."

Dr Kemp said the government's priority was research excellence coupled with the need to capitalise on research produced through greater commercialisation.

But critics claimed the changes to the way existing research money was allocated ignored the fact that Australian research needed an increased level of public and private investment.

The Australian Vice-chancellors' Committee said it was clear Australia was falling behind in the international R&D stakes and the real issue was how more money for research could be found.

The National Tertiary Education Union said the green paper offered a future where student vouchers and the needs of research "users" would increasingly drive the allocations of resources and the nature of research activity.

NTEU research officer Julie Wells said it was disappointing the paper did not tackle the issue of the 5.5 per cent decline in funding for higher education research as revealed in the government's budget papers for the next 12 months.

"No amount of administrative rejigging will disguise the fact that university research funding is steadily falling," Dr Wells said. "The proposal that postgraduate scholarship be made more portable - with funding following the student - clearly points the way to a voucher-driven system."

The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, representing Australia's 137,000 postgraduate students nationally, expressed dismay at the proposals. CAPA president Tom Clark said the green paper's arguments in favour of portable scholarships were wrong. CAPA says:

* The paper claimed the attrition rate for higher degree research courses was 34 per cent, which was much higher than for either undergraduate or postgraduate coursework students. But this figure did not take account of students who had suspended their programmmes or moved to another university.

The true figure was probably in the range of 20-25 per cent, which was similar to that of other students

* Claims that fewer than half postgraduate research students complete their studies within five years were also wrong because this did not account for part-time students who suspended their studies or changed institutions mid-degree.

"The average PhD student completes his or her course within 3.7 years of full-time equivalent study," Mr Clark said. "Ironically, the voucher scholarship scheme proposed in this paper is less mobile, less responsive and less flexible than the current provisions applying to the Australian Postgraduate Awards."

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