BRUCE THOM. University research cuts.

Jan 4, 2019

The December budget update gave the federal government the opportunity to once again slice into the operating expenses of universities. This time it was to cut funds for research. Cumulative hits to one of the nation’s major sources of export income, let alone further stifling funding for research and development, reflect a pattern of anti-intellectualism which some have come to expect from this government.

The announcement on 17 December by the Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, as part of the budget update, that $328.5m would be cut from research funding over the next four years may come as no surprise to those who have witnessed the way universities have been treated by the Coalition Government over the past five years. Margaret Gardiner, the Vice-Chancellor of Monash University, talks of death by a thousand cuts and the latest cut as a raid on university research capacity. The Minister stated that the announcement would allow Government to prioritise education spending including on student places in regional universities. But even Vice-Chancellors from the regions could see through this shift as they had suffered previous cuts and were aghast that the funds coming this this time were from elsewhere in the system.

Universities receive Research Block Grants made up of two parts: Research Training Program and the Research Support Program. Funding helps provide for research facilities and postgraduate training. Total funding in 2019 will stay the same as 2018 at $1.92b, but the $2.17b budgeted for 2022 will drop to $2.05b. The official announcement indicated that the reduced amounts will impact on all 42 “providers” of higher education although one would expect that the cuts will follow the allocation formula and the major research universities will suffer the most. The reaction from Vice-Chancellors of the “Group of Eight” would suggest that this will be the case.

It is well known that overall expenditure on R&D in Australia as a proportion of GDP has been declining since the early 1990’s. It fell dramatically from 2.11% in 2013-14 to 1.88% in 2015-16 well below OECD average of 2.38%. Despite appeals from the universities and the learned academies on the potential adverse effects of such a relatively low level of commitment to being a “clever country”, successive governments have made little attempt to boost the nation’s intellectual capacity. This is at a time when other countries over the last three decades have done the opposite. I personally recall as a former Vice-Chancellor visiting Singapore in 1996 hearing how it was investing in higher education, including research, at the same time the new Howard Government was embarking on huge cuts to our universities.

The December cuts to research funding were accompanied by the announcement that the Research Support Program offered “providers” with autonomy as decisions are best made by each provider in consultation with its researchers, stakeholders and communities. No mention of the national interest test here! I was bemused by this statement as it has runs counter to the claw back of funds over many years with the development of national competitive research grants programs. It is important to have such programs, but have we gone too far in not just reducing the cake but how it is sliced up?

Unlike in the USA, most of our nationally awarded grants are not individually accompanied by salary or infrastructure support. There are some exceptions to this, but as noted on 18 December by Universities Australia, representing the 42 “providers”, for every $100,000 grant won, the universities must find $85,000 to deliver the research product. This can involve cost-shifting within each institution relying more and more on funds derived from teaching both Australian and overseas students. In many places there has been a reduction in specialised research support staff who are required to operate facilities in the long term. Here is the rub; our international reputation as research universities depends on faculties having the capacity to undertake world-class research. Rankings are important. As higher education is a major export earner through our ability to attract overseas students, it makes no sense to even hint at reducing research capacity and hence our standing in the international stakes. Is this what our Government is seeking?

At the moment universities in Australia are not able to offer the best possible outcome through their research endeavours. I feel quite sad that we have tremendous intellectual capital that is underutilised and is limited by a system that fails to offer the much needed resources that so many staff are capable of producing. For whatever reason the Coalition Government seems to treat academic and support staff as just suppliers of trained products not as knowledge creators or innovators capable of benefiting society in so many ways.

There are other models besides just pumping more research dollars into the current system, although many would argue that would help. I favour a model that does give “providers” more autonomy by greatly enhancing the Research Block Grant and allowing more funds for internal allocation of research projects. I experienced such a system years ago at the ANU and at Sydney University. It works well when there is rigorous internal assessment. There were no big transaction costs associated with time to prepare and assess applications for funds. Staff whose appointment to a university position is based on research ability will have greater chance to sustain an on-going research program and not be part of the group of around 75% or so that “fail”; they don’t fail, the system fails them! And it will keep employed those valued support staff. I advocate a larger proportion of funds from say the ARC and NH&MRC to be added to the block grant.  Keep the national competitive program to the multi-year big projects over several million—I hesitate to give a figure.

As a nation we must learn once again to trust our universities to foster the development and transmission of knowledge. Within our institutions there are enough checks and balances to ensure the nation benefits from the elite intellectual capital that it is investing in. We must give them more not less opportunities to get on with what they are good at and not send messages like that from the budget update that impedes our national well-being.

Bruce Thom, former Pro Vice-Chancellor Research, University of Sydney, and former Vice-Chancellor, University of New England.

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