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Buying in research teams not for us, says ANU

HE sector ‘horrified’ by Central Queensland poaching

Lawrence Cram, the Australian National University’s deputy vice-chancellor, says his institution has no plans to follow Central Queensland University in poaching research teams from other institutions.

CQU hit the headlines in September after recruiting a team of up to 50 epidemiology researchers and research students from the University of South Australia. Vice-chancellor Scott Bowman admitted at the time that the move was in part motivated by attempts to achieve better results in the Excellence in Research for Australia initiative—which rates university research.

In an interview with Research ANZ, Cram was categorical that ANU would not do the same. The poaching provoked what he describes as a “horrified” reaction within the Australian higher education sector.

“Our real problem is defending ourselves from being a source of poaching. It’s very easy in Australia for a university that is developing its research profile to so concentrate its resources into one area that they can buy an entire research group. At ANU we can’t play that game because we have to invest uniformly across our researchers,” he said.

Cram describes the higher education sector’s attitude towards ERA as a “resigned acceptance” but is keen to play down the government’s plans to allocate university funding according to its results in the future.

“Any shift in resource flow that occurs as a result of ERA is going to be small. It will be done in a way that makes it very difficult for an external observer to say this university is better than that university because they got more. I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” he says.

However, Cram believes that humanities and social sciences could fall off the map as a result of revisions to ERA that were announced in September.

In the 2010 round, institutions had to submit a minimum of 50 outputs in disciplines that were to be assessed with citation analysis in order to qualify. Those that were to be peer reviewed—including most humanities and social science subjects—were allowed to submit just 30 outputs to qualify.

However, the guidelines for ERA 2012, published in September, reveal that disciplines to be peer reviewed will no longer be granted this concession and will have to submit 50 outputs or fail to qualify for assessment.

“What will happen is that a very large number of groups that were assessed under the 2010 guidelines in the humanities and social sciences will simply disappear from assessment and so suddenly it will look like Australia’s humanities and social sciences are poor, which they’re not,” says Cram.

Another major shift in the Australian higher education landscape is the introduction next year of a demand-driven university funding system, where institutions will see caps lifted. This will leave them free to enroll unlimited students to their courses.

Despite opposition from the National Tertiary Education Union in Australia, Cram believes the new system will not produce an enormous increase in participation.

However, he harbours concerns that it could further polarise the Australian higher education sector.

“I think what might happen is that some of the better universities that choose to expand will take academically proficient students who might be going to newer universities now and so you could get greater segregation, a sense of ‘this is a university for the smarties, this is a university for the dummies’, and I think that would be really quite unfortunate,” he said.

He is also unconvinced that any additional funding to support undergraduate education will actually be used for the benefit of their students. It is instead likely to be channeled into research activity.

“I’d much prefer to see the funding lines somewhat separated to say you’re funded to do research with this bucket of money and you have to use this money for teaching,” he said.