Time to redraw Australian funding system, Schmidt tells Labor

This year’s positive financial results mask urgent need for historic reform to ease reliance on international students, says Nobelist

June 8, 2022
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Australia’s newly elected Labor government must consider a fundamental reset of the country’s research system to ensure that it is no longer so reliant on income from Chinese students, a Nobel laureate vice-chancellor has said.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, the Australian National University’s Brian Schmidt said that the incoming administration had a “clean slate” to rectify some “long-standing problems with the research ecosystem in Australia” given that both parties had remained silent on higher education during the recent general election.

“My hope is that it gives us a chance to think through the higher education system in Australia – from nose to tail – and create something enduring for the next 25 years,” said Professor Schmidt, a US-born astrophysicist who won the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics, and has led the Canberra university since 2016.

THE Campus views: After the gold rush – how to respond to the Chinese student downswing

Sector-wide changes on a scale similar to the Dawkins reforms of 1989, which led to the introduction of undergraduate tuition fees, were needed, he insisted, stating that it was important to recognise that “we live in a changed world post-Covid”.

“The system has been patched and patched [since 1989], but it is too reliant on international students to fund the strategic research that the nation needs for a prosperous future,” he said.

“We’ve had a win-win situation – internationalised universities which have also benefited from a very large cohort of students – and we have used the surpluses from that to create a better and stronger university system,” Professor Schmidt explained.

“But the world has changed – the number of international students prepared to come to Australia is going to struggle to return to pre-Covid levels, partly due to the strengthening system of China but also increasing competition from the US, Canada, the UK and, increasingly, Europe.

“It’s going to be much harder for us to do what we did, but our research system is predicated on us returning to exactly the way it was. At this very uncertain time, why would you want to have your research system built upon an international student market that just doesn’t exist any longer?”

Professor Schmidt insisted that he was not being unnecessarily gloomy about the prospects of Australia’s international student market, which has remained surprisingly resilient throughout the pandemic. Several major universities have posted record surpluses on the back of lockdowns, with the University of Sydney in the black to the tune of A$1 billion (£574 million) in its 2021 accounts.

“Maybe I am wrong and maybe international student income will return, but most vice-chancellors and members of the government do not think it will, or, if it does, it will be short-lived,” he said.

Many universities, including ANU, were contending with high levels of debt, Professor Schmidt said, adding that it was important to “look beyond the immediate financial results of 2021. Everyone can see the future has a lot of risk attached to it.”

The new administration should also consider whether Australia had struck the right balance between basic and applied research – with the latter becoming the priority in recent years, Professor Schmidt said.

“Every country wants to have commercialised research, but we shouldn’t do that by not paying for basic research – that fails to understand that commercialised research often begins with basic research,” he said. ANU, for example, spun out five research-led companies in 2021 alone, but is increasingly constrained by the amount of basic science happening in the university.

“Stealing from the future by saying ‘it’s a zero-sum game’ and ‘we’re not going to fund physics, chemistry or earth sciences’ – that is a fool’s errand which will actually poison the future of commercialisation,” Professor Schmidt warned.



Print headline: ‘System needs a reset’

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