Unis call for national research and innovation agency

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

Australia’s research heavy universities have called for a new national innovation agency and research strategy as part of generational higher education reforms, warning institutions can’t keep taking a 45 per cent loss on government funded research.

The Group of Eight (Go8) universities – whose main members earned nearly 70 per cent of all research income reported by universities last year – want a new “systems approach” to research to be part of the Albanese government’s landmark universities Accord.

Led by Professor Mary O’Kane, the Accord is seeking input on reforms billed as generational, asking stakeholders to plan for a higher education sector of 2053.

Photo: aiyoshi597/Shutterstock

In its submission to the consultation, the Go8, which represents institutions like Sydney University and the University of Melbourne, warned Australia’s relative success in research output may not last that long because it is “built on instability” like a lack of dedicated or insufficient research funding and stagnating overall R&D investment levels.

The group said its member universities invested $7.7 billion into research in 2020. One third of this was directly funded from federal government research programs like those run by the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council.

The universities are covering more than half the project costs through their General University Funds — largely from international student fees.

According to the Go8, this equation and additional costs means its universities are now undertaking research work funded by government grants at a 45 per cent loss and are exposed to shocks like the pandemic which demolished international student numbers.

While government grants can cover research project fees and researcher salaries, much more is needed to complete the work, the Go8 said. It points to costs like energy, maintenance and additional support staff that can account for 20 per cent of a project total.

The universities are also increasingly being asked to co-contribute more direct costs like supplementary researcher salaries, the Go8 said.

“Go8 universities fund this significant and structural funding deficit largely through discretionary revenue sources, including international student fees,” the submission said.

“Not only does this ignore the fact that universities are research providers not research funders, but it also means that Australia’s national public research effort is subject to the variabilities of the international student market – a vulnerability that the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated is simply not sustainable.”

A move to “full economic cost support” for government research grants would be part of “a truly national system of research which is fit for the future”, the Go8 said.

It said this would start with a national research strategy and agency to oversee it.

The strategy should outline how the Albanese government will make good on its election promise to raise overall investment in research from 1.8 per cent of GDP back to the OECD average of 2.7 per cent, and then go further to the Go8 recommended target of closer to 3 per cent.

The strategy should outline short term incentives to boost R&D expenditure but also how public and private organisations can partner on a long term “step change”. The long term change would need incentives for collaboration and a plan for a “research trained workforce” to help pull through university breakthroughs.

The new plan would also cover other funding issues, more domestic researchers through increased PhD support, migration policy for international researchers, and international collaboration to tap overseas funding, while embracing the diversity of various research fields and forms.

The Go8 has also asked the Accord to recommend a government agency to have carriage of the national research strategy and take a “a whole of government approach to managing policy and funding for research and innovation”.

As well as the research strategy, the new agency would review and recalibrate the government’s near $12 billion annual research investment, which occurs through 157 distinct programs across 12 portfolios.

“Australia is too small to have such a fragmented research funding system,” the Go8 submission said.

“We need greater collaboration and more integration between the different funding bodies to provide greater economies of scale for our research efforts, reduce the bureaucratic burden on researchers and their institutions, and to encourage greater collaboration between the different components of the research system.”

The new agency would bring together existing main research funding agencies and schemes like the ARC, NHMRC and MRF while also having responsibility for supporting Australia’s research infrastructure.

The agency’s responsibility of research infrastructure would allow it to incentivise more collaborative infrastructure rather than universities investing their own resources to build research facilities as a “means of competitive advantage”.

“Taking a national approach to core research infrastructure would also offer another means to lessen universities’ reliance on international student fees to cross-subsidise the costs of research,” the submission said.

As part of the generational changes, Australian universities would also become more specialised like overseas counterparts such as the Caltech in the US and the London School of Economics and Political Science in the UK, the Go8 said.

It urged the Accord to consider how universities could be better differentiated and focused. This would include designating a small number of universities as “Federal research-intensive” to coordinate “research capability with critical mass”. Other universities would be recognised as centres of excellence in particular fields or as having a focus on strategically important capabilities.

“Although this may appear a radical idea – and in some ways it is – the Go8 notes that in 2020 only eight universities reported over 45 per cent of total expenditure on research with a further four reporting between 35 and 45 per cent.”

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