The Australian Council of Professions acknowledges the importance of the matters raised in the Discussion Paper on Higher Education Research and Research Training and appreciates the fact that the Minister is giving proper attention to this area. Nevertheless, it is generally acknowledged that the university system, including university research, is seriously affected by funding shortfalls. It is difficult to see that the present unsatisfactory situation will be retrieved without the acceptance by Government that the funding of universities and of university research must receive a higher level of priority in the allocation of funds under the Budget than at present.
Funding of higher education must not just be seen as a cost but as an investment and that investment is for the contribution those who undertake a university education will be making to the general community and the general economy. Certainly a university education enables an individual in many fields to achieve a higher level of earning but it also enables the individual to assist in raising the overall social and economic level of the community. It is fair that there should be a sharing between the government representing the community and the individual. This is achieved by HECS which is not only generally accepted but is seen as a desirable model by other countries.
The Minister’s discussion paper acknowledges the importance of knowledge as a ‘key factor’ and the importance of research as a ‘key source’ of knowledge. The aim of the paper in the encouragement of research, leading to innovation, must be accepted as an aim crucial to this country’s future and should certainly receive general support.
The attention, and the funding, given to knowledge growth and innovation through research in developed countries, most of which are our economic and trade competitors, emphasises the importance of the high priority this country must give to the encouragement of both pure and applied research as a vital component of our higher education system.
There does not appear to be disagreement on the aims – the critical question is whether the proposals in the paper are likely to achieve its aims and to improve research and research training in higher education as the Government expects, and whether there are included in the paper proposals which may damage the research capacity of some, or all, institutions of the higher education sector.
The response by the Australian Council of Professions recognises that individual professions have made their own submissions and that there are some differences of opinion on some issues. It is intended here to comment on some matters which may generally be seen as problematic and which are considered to need revision or further development rather than giving attention to the various positive aspects of the proposals in the discussion paper.
While acknowledging the Government’s recognition of the importance of research in the higher education sector, it cannot be seen in isolation from the general unsatisfactory state which universities have reached as a result of government policies and funding reductions. It is to be welcomed that the Minister now acknowledges in his recent Cabinet paper what is termed a ‘perception’ but which those with any real knowledge of the situation will know as a reality, that the University system as a whole is in a state of decline.
The Minister acknowledges both the importance of universities in our society and economy and that universities “are currently in a difficult financial position.“
Research and learning in a university situation are closely linked, especially in relation to funding. In all disciplines it is necessary to encourage scholarship and research as a vital part of the living, evolving nature of the disciplines. If a level of research in all disciplines is not encouraged, the link between student learning and the encouragement of a critical, searching, expanding view of the discipline by both staff and students will be unlikely to occur. Students respond best to those who continue to explore in their discipline and who can convey the excitement of expanding knowledge. Furthermore, the attraction to the university faculty of the brightest minds will not take place without opportunities to engage in research. While this does not mean that every discipline in every university needs to be a centre of excellence where the most creative and forward looking investigation into the growth of the disciplines takes place, it does mean that some research in all disciplines in all universities should be encouraged. Those whose work merits it can then gravitate to universities which are regarded as centres of excellence in their discipline.
Bearing in mind the need to encourage research generally, it is important that the Research Infrastructure Block Grant should continue in its present form with adequate funding and not be made part of project grants of the various agencies. In the form proposed in the Green Paper it is likely that grants would come in relatively small amounts specifically for particular projects and would not allow universities to make adequate provision for general infrastructure and for large items of equipment which would be for general use and not be restricted to the recipient of an approved ‘discovery’ or ‘linkage’ application. Furthermore, it would make it extremely difficult to remedy existing shortfalls and build adequate infrastructure to meet expanding and changing future needs.
The principal objection the ACoP has to the Green Paper is that the changes proposed will demand more funds but there do not appear to be any proposals for increasing the funding to universities to provide for the changes. As previously stated, the universities are already seriously underfunded and any changes which further reduce funds would have serious consequences for the overall quality of the university system.
The following proposals in the green paper all appear to demand additional funding:
- Additional research fellowships and Prime Minister’s scholarships are worthy objectives but are only to be funded, it appears, within existing funding for universities, and therefore must cut into scarce funds for other purposes.
- The proposal that the eligibility for funding should be extended to a wider range of institutions ie to “all institutions undertaking research and research training” could well lead to a considerable expansion of applications by institutions outside the university system, with the result of further reducing funds for universities.
- The proposal for grants of up to $500,000 a year for periods of up to 5 years under both the Discovery and Linkage systems does not appear to be predicated on new funding.
- The support the Government has already given to research funding for biotechnology and health and medical research must be acknowledged as a valuable contribution. Nevertheless, the present funding proposals will mean that overall research and research infrastructure funding will drop significantly from the year 2000 at a time when there is a pressing need for expansion of funds.
There is now general acknowledgment of the need for increased funding of universities, both for general purposes and for research. Proposals in the Green Paper which will result in reduction in general funding due to increases in research activities will be to the serious detriment of the system as a whole. Some other means must be found to prevent this happening.
An Entrepreneurial Culture
The statement that it should be a key policy to develop an “entrepreneurial culture among researchers” may be misguided as it suggests that this should be a dominant, if not the most important, attribute to be held. The best researchers are those with the creative vision and the application to pursue their particular research area with a level of commitment and determination which leaves little time to engage in entrepreneurial activities. It is well-known to those in the private sector that the most successful entrepreneurs are those who are also dedicated and spend time and effort promoting their entrepreneurial proposals. For good researchers to spend the time it takes to be a good entrepreneur diminishes the time available for research and may even taint that research, notwithstanding the fact that there may well be some academics who can combine the two.
This is not to say that universities should not employ entrepreneurial managers who will work alongside and assist researchers to promote and commercialise discoveries, when those discoveries are at the point where development into commercial viability is possible. There is often a lengthy time span, sometimes of many years, during which a “research discovery” is worked on and developed. There may well be points along that route when consideration of possible commercial application becomes apparent and when an entrepreneurial outlook would be helpful but it should not dominate the attitude of the research, nor unduly reduce the researcher’s time and energy to the detriment of the research.
It must also be said that some research never leads to commercial implementation but adds to knowledge generally and this kind of research must not be discouraged by placing too much emphasis on “the development of an entrepreneurial culture”.
Our best researchers need to be able to both maintain their contact with the most forward looking research being carried out overseas, and to contribute to that research by their own work. If that doesn’t take place, the research record and reputation of this country will be diminished and, as one of the consequences, our researchers will seek posts elsewhere. The Green Paper acknowledges that there is already some evidence that this is happening. As there are many areas in which Australian research is at a high level internationally, the loss of leading researchers would have serious effects for the whole system.
The most effective and the most enthusiastic entrepreneurship should be coming from industry and there is evidence in many universities that such links with industry are taking place, primarily at the instigation of universities. The cooperative research centres and SPIRT programmes, which are to be retained and expanded, have shown what can be achieved, although there has been some criticism of the slowness of achieving results. There must be sympathetic and patient understanding that research results do not come off an assembly line. Industry must be prepared not just to expect short term rewards but to plan ahead over what may in some cases be many years, requiring the kind of research patience which is shown in progressive industries in countries overseas.
The Green Paper records that R&D investment by industry has declined recently and acknowledges the need for greater engagement by industry, especially in the provision of venture capital and the commercialising of research discoveries. An important role for Government is to provide incentives and the Australian Council of Professions will welcome taxation incentives and encourages government to develop other incentives.
Users and the Research Agenda
There is a danger that too great an emphasis on the role of users in defining the research agenda may lead to constraining research into areas which are already understood and acknowledged by users, with the result of failing to explore new, unfamiliar areas which may prove more innovative and productive eventually.
Some areas of research simply do not have immediate uses but may do in the long run. Others contribute to the general knowledge in ways which enrich the culture. It would not only be difficult to select appropriate users in such areas, for example in areas involving creativity, but users, almost by definition, would come with pre-established attitudes which could be prejudicial to innovative and high risk proposals which may in time prove of great importance.
The ACP supports the proposal to simplify the means of arriving at the Research Quantum (or its equivalent) component of the Operating Grant, especially the proposal to include consultancy income which contributes to innovation, since this is entirely relevant to a number of professional faculties where consultancy is an essential component of the interaction between university and profession.
Social Science and Creative Arts Research
There are research areas of importance to a number of professions which involve creativity and social sciences research and which have not been given adequate attention under funding systems at present in place. Work in some professions and in their university faculties in the investigation and development of new products or new procedures relevant to that profession may not use the methods generally understood to constitute research and, unless this is understood, may not qualify for research funding under the proposed new system. The importance of these areas needs to be acknowledged and funding arrangements developed under any new system to ensure that they are not disadvantaged.
Research Student Numbers
In view of the recognised and accepted need to develop further this country’s, and therefore the universities’, research profile, the proposal to reduce the number of research students appears ill-advised. The statement about lack of success in employment of some PhD graduates does not appear to be based on a thorough analysis of causes and should receive more in-depth analysis before being used as a basis for reducing the number of research degree students. In any case there have been developments in universities of professional doctoral degrees targeted at the needs of industry and of the professions which may well lead to an expansion rather than a reduction in the number of places needed in the future.
In relation to the generally agreed overall need for more and better research as we move into a more intensely knowledge based economy, the proposal to reduce numbers is unfortunate and is not supported.
Research Student Funding
The proposal to reduce funding for PhD research students from 5 years to 3.5 years and for masters students from 3 to 2 years would seriously disadvantage many forms of research training, especially involving cross disciplinary research needing greater time to encompass a range of contributing disciplines. There are many practical realities which come in the pursuit of research goals which cannot always be encompassed in the restricted times now proposed. Undue restrictions on time could well lead to short cuts and failures to consider all necessary factors. At the very least there should be flexibility to take account of particular programmes which cannot be contained within the times proposed in the paper.
It is entirely appropriate that the importance of research should be acknowledged and the research record of the higher education sector examined, especially as the Australian community and economy come to grips with the rapidly changing and technologically complex world. At this time, investigation of innovations and putting the results of innovation into use must have the highest priority. The Government should acknowledge this and ensure that the additional funding necessary is provided. The proposals in the Green Paper do not give confidence that this will happen.