Shift research towards industry collaboration, urges Aston v-c

Aleks Subic suggests UK universities need to be ‘an active collaborator’ with government, rather than going on the defensive

September 23, 2022
Aleks Subic, Aston University vice-chancellor
Source: Aston University

UK universities will likely need to learn lessons from Australia on addressing funding shortfalls and creating commercial opportunities from research if they are to prove their worth to sceptical politicians, according to a vice-chancellor who has become the latest to move between the two countries.

Aston University’s newly installed vice-chancellor, Aleks Subic, hopes his time in leadership positions at RMIT University and Swinburne University of Technology will equip him well as he gets to grips with familiar challenges on the other side of the globe.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, he said progress on diversifying revenue, internationalisation and embracing new delivery models of education was further ahead in Australia “due to necessity” after years of being forced to “do more with less” under the previous government.

While critical of elements of the interventionist approach favoured by Scott Morrison’s regime went “overboard” in terms of ministers making granular decisions about grant funding, Professor Subic said the heightened focus on ensuring that the outcomes of research were better aligned with supporting economic growth and job creation was to be welcomed.

A similar exercise in the UK sector could see a realignment of funding in favour of industry-focused institutions such as Aston, according to Professor Subic.

“Governments have the responsibility to incentivise and support collaboration between industry, business and universities, as we have seen in Australia,” he said.

“That has been proven to produce excellent outcomes that are of significant value to the economy and society. Here in the UK, I think the dial has been on one side for a long time, and it has to be readjusted. It is only to the benefit of national prosperity if it happens.”

Universities seeking to deal with a funding crisis can also take lessons from Australia, according to Professor Subic.

Problems caused by the ongoing freeze in undergraduate tuition fees in England have been exacerbated by rising inflation, forcing institutions to consider how to continue to run courses without making a loss.

Professor Subic said there was in Australia a “constant pressure to do more with less”.

“In Australia, we had to progress a bit faster in diversifying our revenue sources, with modifying our modes of delivery, trying to do things smarter such as making our campuses and organisations a bit more efficient and automating our operations – there is scope for a lot of improvement,” he said.

“However, if the trend continues, you reach a stage where you cannot do any more – it is dangerous; it can have very negative implications on society. We were getting close to that point. I think there has been a reset over there with the new government initiating a number of reviews, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the funding model and some of the levers change. I think we have to be careful in the UK of getting to a similar point.”

Professor Subic said universities must get better at making their case to the government and offer solutions to overcome the “stalemate” on issues such as funding.

“From what I have seen in the UK, is there is a bit of a disconnect between some of the narrative from the government and the responses from the sector,” he said.

“I don’t think the partnership between the two is as close and deep as it can be. I have always taken the approach of coming to government with ideas and solutions and [trying to] be an active partner and collaborator because I think that’s the way to make things happen. Being positive in my experience always leads to better outcomes than being defensive.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Naive. It's impossible to make the case for research to the bunch of scoundrels in govt who reject scholarship and science, so better to hold them to account until they are gone. Working with industry means most disciplinary areas remain unsupported.