Tenuous Australian research funding ‘undercut by pandemic’

Clay feet of cross-subsidy policies exposed by Covid-19 crisis, representative groups say

May 11, 2020
house of cards tenuous precarious risky
Source: iStock

Covid-19 has undermined the house of cards propping up Australian university research, prompting fresh pleas for government assistance.

Representative groups say the longstanding practice of using excess teaching funds to cross-subsidise research has been dealt a fatal blow by the pandemic.

The Innovative Research Universities (IRU) has demanded a two-year “research investment package” including maintenance of state government funding and new federal incentives for business investment.

The IRU said research was reeling from massive losses in income from international students, commercial earners – including car parks, shops and accommodation – and research contracts traditionally worth more than grants from the research funding councils.

“Research is…the driver of our economy and the solution to every medical and scientific question ever asked,” blogged IRU executive director Conor King. “If we allow research funding to fall, not only will jobs be put at risk but also the knowledge those jobs generate. As the coronavirus crisis has shown, you never know when that knowledge may come in handy.”

Universities Australia said researchers would be disproportionately impacted by coronavirus-induced revenue losses. It cited Curtin University modelling that the crisis could jeopardise the salaries of 38 per cent of research students, postdoctoral researchers and professors.

Chief executive Catriona Jackson said Australian investment in research and development had slumped to 1.79 per cent of GDP compared to an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average of 2.38 per cent. More research funding would be an investment not only in universities but “in the health of Australians and in new jobs on the other side of this pandemic”.

The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) said research funding would be further stretched by the government’s move to inject more flexibility in support arrangements for graduate students, such as allowing universities to extend postgraduate scholarships by six months.

CAPA president Romana Begicevic said that while such concessions were welcome, they would reduce resources down the line. “With finite funds, universities face the stark choice between funding current students and sustaining future enrolments.”

Australian National University policy expert Andrew Norton said Canberra only partially funded research projects supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). That policy “could work when universities had discretionary income from international student profits, but may not be feasible now”, Professor Norton blogged.

“Will research projects fall over, wasting all the money and time spent to date, because universities can no longer afford them? Improving funding on existing ARC and NHMRC grants, along with grants to be awarded in the next couple of years, would use existing information and administrative systems – the most efficient way of running Covid-19 assistance programs.

“It would also spread the assistance into 2021 and 2022, which are likely [to] be worse years than 2020 for universities.”

Former University of Melbourne administrators Frank Larkins and Ian Marshman said the razor thin margins from domestic teaching grants left little if anything to cross-subsidise research. Their analysis of a recent report into higher education expenditure concluded that teaching costs absorbed between 92 and 95 cents of every dollar of bachelor-level funding – and this was probably an underestimate.

The finding “debunks the long-held assertion that the quantum of government funding for teaching and scholarship includes a component for research”, they concluded in an article for the Campus Morning Mail newsletter.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

Again quality will triumph over quantity and good riddance with the international researchers – most of them very in sensitive research projects that would benefit their home countries and even the asio had warned universities about these researchers and sooner they are exits from universities here the better. There will be more quality researches and that will benefit industry cooperation greatly. Most international researcher had supervisors of the same ethnicity and almost no commercially viable product came out of these paper pusher, all they did was strip, cut, paste and extrapolate. The fixation with number must stop and the utterly primitive logic that numbers means more output. look at research coming out the Scandinavian countries and out of Swiss life sciences industry and question why Australia has never had that success and the reason is the latter have tight knit team of cohesive researchers with a long term objective and clearly defined goals and that cannot happen when the international researcher singular goal is to get a job and migration after their PhD. Australia will be forced to change its mindset and focus on quality of output. Name one commercially viable product that came out of the research of Australian universities due to international researchers in the last 10 years when their numbers increased dramatically and there are no examples that are household names around the world. Dr Florey and his associates were a different mental makeup and talent and tens of thousands of overseas researchers would not equal them
Alan finkel once said that even if everything was done under the sun to reduce emissions the effect on climate change would be virtually nothing replying to Senator MacDonald and this was published widely, so we believe what Alan finkel says? Should we? The fallacy here is that Australia is not the only country affected by covid and all countries will be impacted significantly in their research funding and output and having to support their citizens so I am unsure how Australia stands out uniquely among others and with other at an alleged imaginative better placed competitively? Unless all these tens of thousands of researchers were all working on covid, I find it difficult to fathom how they can help especially with 2 nd wave covid now affecting china. While the world is burning under covid, the university VC’s or ex VC’s are fiddling with research not related to covid and how does it serve if the imminent covid emergency is not tamed if there is great research on using nano particles in detecting cancers but then covid claims and god forbid more casualty as claimed in his reassuring powerpoint presentation and ted talks indicating tens of millions or more! And I’d rather not ask tens of millions of what? . Australia would need in the interim covid researchers and others and their funding can wait. If this is the chief scientist allocating resources, we are headed for trouble!

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