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Looking outside the academy

Australian academia is broadening its outlook as financial pressures force staff away from research

With Covid-19 seemingly under control in Australia, the nation is getting back to business. But for researchers at the nation’s public universities, ongoing border closures and loss of lucrative international student fees mean it is anything but business as usual.

Those fees were the lifeblood of the sector. Yet despite doom and gloom over their decline, there are those who believe there is a way to mend the damage caused and survive the potentially lethal blow to university finances.

They see an opportunity in the current crisis to create a more sustainable university research sector and build mutually beneficial partnerships with government, communities and industry. 

But the road to that destination is a tricky one.

In recent research published by the University of Melbourne, Teresa Tjia, Ian Marshman, Janet Beard, and Elizabeth Baré were pessimistic about the future.

“Australian universities are facing their greatest challenges since at least the 1930s Depression as a result of the pandemic,” they wrote.

According to their report, the country’s universities have lost A$3.8 billion in 2020 to date. Costs have been cut where there is the most fat; for Australian universities, that means employment, which accounts for 57 per cent of expenditure. It is calculated that this will result in the loss of the full-time equivalent of 10 per cent of the workforce.

First to go were sessional and casual staff. But this ramped up pressure on fixed-term staff to plug gaps left by the departures and increased their teaching workloads at the expense of research activity. 

Speaking with Research Professional News, John Fischetti, pro vice-chancellor of the University of Newcastle, explains what this means for Australia’s researchers.

“We are here to impact humanity,” he said. “Universities are hard-wired to help solve the big problems of society together with our communities and to celebrate our human experience.”

Less time for research equals less time solving those big problems.

It would be reassuring to think Australia’s private sector might pick up the slack. But its lacklustre performance in R&D compared with other OECD countries makes that unlikely. With annual spending clocking in at just 1.8 per cent of GDP, Australia lags far behind the highest-performing nations. 

The loss of research capacity has long-term implications. Public universities provide latitude for researchers to experiment, untethered from the corporate agendas that underpin private industry research projects. This encourages innovation that leads to ground-breaking discoveries, and provides a proving ground for emerging academic talent.

The loss of that capacity will be felt across the country.

“We know exactly what high-quality research and researchers can do for every Australian,” said Group of Eight chief executive, Vicki Thomson. “We also know these benefits are worth every cent, and more.”

Federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg agrees. In the 2020 budget, he announced an extra A$1bn in new funds for research projects to back “our best and brightest minds whose ideas will help drive our recovery”.  

That injection of cash comes with the expectation that public universities will shift away from the existing cost-intensive approach to funding research which has relied on international student fees. Instead, they will be encouraged to pursue commercial partnerships. 

Speaking with Research Professional News, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, Skills and Employment pointed to a A$5.8 million scoping study focused on commercialising university research to support research in the longer term announced as part of 2020-21 Budget commitments. This, they said, would “ensure Australia gets better at turning ideas into jobs, opportunities and growth”.

In mid-November, an expert panel to provide input to that study was appointed by the federal minister for education, Dan Tehan.

One of the issues on the table is likely to be a move towards evaluating research by its impact, rather than via the usual inward-looking measures of success that evaluate the inputs of grant money brought to the university, and outputs in terms of publications. 

In a post-Covid world, with so many interests competing for a slice of the public-money pie, it is more important than ever for public universities to scrutinise their relationship with, and relevance to, Australian society.

Ian Marshman and Frank Larkins at the University of Melbourne’s LH Martin Institute have suggested that a solution might be the establishment of an independent ‘Research and Innovation Council’, representing private research institutes, universities, government research agencies and industry. This could have a strong R&D focus and “provide governments with independent strategic research advice and promote the national benefits of investment in research”, they suggest.

Whichever route Australia’s research sector takes to ensure its survival, Group of Eight chief Thomson told Research Professional News what she believes is the best way forward.

“Any recovery must ensure a more sovereign Australia; one that is more capable, more productive, even more innovative than it already is,” she said. “We need to establish ourselves post Covid-19 as a very different, more independent, productive economic entity in the world order.”