Research ‘underdone’ in landmark Australian review

Light-touch treatment of one of universities’ fundamental roles leaves too many questions hanging, observers worry

July 25, 2023
Notes upon research
Source: iStock

The Universities Accord’s cursory treatment of research leaves Australia struggling to maintain current levels of output, let alone match international competitors, critics have warned.

The panel’s interim report devotes 11 pages to research while allocating roughly four times as much space to teaching issues. The word “research” appeared three times in a Canberra speech launching the report, while the other fundamental activity of universities – education – attracted 20 mentions.

Griffith University vice-chancellor Carolyn Evans said the education minister, Jason Clare, was understandably focused on broadening participation. “But we need to be a bit more ambitious and thoughtful about research,” she said.

The report says Australia’s reliance on international student revenue to fund research has become so extensive that “it cannot realistically be replaced by public sources”, continued Professor Evans, arguing that the sector needed a proactive discussion about alternatives.

“There’s little recognition of how much…Chinese financial capacity has helped support Australian research. If for geopolitical reasons we want to stop or limit that, how is the Australian government going to support us to play with a different global network?”

University of Sydney deputy vice-chancellor Emma Johnston said research in areas such as “deep tech” and biomedicine were extremely expensive. “You need critical mass. We can’t afford every team to be doing the same thing across Australia. How do we differentiate our universities?”

Representative group Science and Technology Australia described the report’s failure to recommend a funding target, at a time when Canberra’s spending on research and development was at a 45-year low, as an “own goal”.

“We’re at the lowest level of government spending relative to the size of our economy since 1978,” said chief executive Misha Schubert. “[We need] a clear, articulated recommendation [about] how to scale up that investment with a target and a time frame. This was a major moment to do that. The panel missed that opportunity.”

But UNSW Sydney deputy vice-chancellor Merlin Crossley said the report had addressed “all” the key research issues, including the size of competitive grants, infrastructure funding, translation, support for indirect costs and the need to compete with the “booming economies” on Australia’s doorstep.

“Have we been left behind? The message in [the] report is, ‘not yet’. But this is absolutely a strong call to action.”

Mr Clare told Times Higher Education that he expected research to be “a bigger part of the panel’s final report”.

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