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‘The boom is over’, Australian universities warned

Universities in Australia must accept that the boom years are over, the Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS) has heard.

Speaking at the society’s annual conference in Sydney last week, consultant Thomas Barlow—author of The Australian Miracle: An Innovative Nation revisited—argued that at the end of 20 years of growth, higher education faces a period of stress.

“The next 10 years will be no way near as easy and no way near as pleasant as the last five have been,” he said, formally opening the three-day event in Sydney on 14 September.

After two decades in which investment in R&D in Australia has grown at double the rate of Europe and the OECD, there has never been a better time to be a researcher in Australia, Barlow said. However, A “perfect storm” of events is now conspiring to end the boom years. This includes a shift away from fundamental research, heightened competition from Asia and shifts in university policy.

“Now is not the time for imagination but for gritted teeth and bare-knuckle fighting,” he warned the conference.

Growth in government research spending has brought its own perils, Barlow said, including what he called the increasing “politicisation” of funding. He told ARMS that more and more funding has and will be directed into areas considered important by the government, such as energy, climate change and the automobile industry. This will leave little for “agnostic” research streams. Even those institutions that secure funding from the government in such priority areas will find that the money will be allocated according to “perverse” rules.

While the growth of research-only positions at institutions has brought strong players to higher education, it has also divided the sector, he added. Many teaching researchers feel that fewer opportunities are open to them than their research-only colleagues. There is also a growing sense that a better informed and more demanding student body will make it harder for universities to subsidise their research activities with teaching money. Despite the investments made and the stand-out stars, Australia’s researchers are not keeping up with the international competition.

“If we want to improve the impact of our research internationally, we desperately need to improve the quality,” he argued.

More problems are afoot in the private sector, he went on to say. Despite exponential growth in private sector spending during the boom period, Australia still has no internationally visible hi-tech firms, having failed to invest in manufacturing R&D. Around 50 per cent of private-sector R&D spending goes into the services industry, he revealed.

This is concerning in a time of profound economic uncertainty, he said, since the role of the state in supporting innovation is in question.