This article is part of a series on big ideas for the University Agreement. The federal government is calling for ideas to “reshape and reinvent higher education, setting it up for the next decade and beyond”. An assessment team must complete a draft report in June and a final report in December 2023.
At the same time, government-funded research in higher education boosts economic productivity in a way that other government funding does not. Together, the future of Australian prosperity depends on the teaching and research within the tertiary education system, and especially our universities.
The Australian higher education system has served Australia well for the past 30 years, but it is not suited to the rapid pace of change the world will be subjected to in the coming decades. If Australia’shappy country”, we will have to make more of our own happiness.
The call from the federal government tolasting reform” offers Australian universities a timely opportunity to take action with the Universities Accord.
In my personal submission ahead of the accord process, I’m outlining three big ideas to help reset higher education to deliver the system Australians need and deserve. The first is to provide every Australian with lifetime access to a single higher education systemspread across both university and vocational education.
In this piece, I want to focus on my other two big ideas: improving the way we fund and then translate research. These offer some of the biggest and easiest bang-for-buck solutions we can offer.
Australia’s research ecosystem
Australia’s research ecosystem has become very dependent on funding through cross-subsidies from international tuition fees. Currently, Australian government expenditure on research and development – expressed as a fraction of GDP by the OECD as “GBARD” – is the lowest of the world’s advanced economies and is keep falling.
Instead, universities now spend more on research (via international tuition fees) than the government. This does not happen in other advanced economies.
In addition, public funding of targeted research for national benefit is short-lived, ad hoc, not strategically planned between agencies, and poorly aligned with university planning schedules. Over the past seven years as Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, I have seen dozens of different programs come and go at different government agencies with no overall coordination.
Research funding is also not fully integrated with workforce and high equipment needs, all leading to shortages in key areas of national research need. For example, looking at critical minerals, the research infrastructure that supports the Earth sciences is completely lacking in planning and funding.
Universities, government and industry are not collaborating on the major research issues facing Australia. To solve this, Australia urgently needs a fully funded sovereign research capability. We also need to better translate research outside the universities into the real world.
We need to identify and properly fund sovereign research
Sovereign research capacity is about Australia’s ability to fund and conduct the research it deems vital to its national interests.
We need to identify the core set of sovereign investigative capabilities required for the future security and prosperity of the Australian people. And we must fully finance these activities (including overhead costs), without the need for cross-subsidies from foreign sources. That requires a government-wide approach.
This core research can be expected to be uniformly excellent. It should include curiosity-driven research, as well as research into practical solutions to existing problems (“applied research”). It must also go beyond technological developments to support the vibrancy of Australian democracy and culture.
Much of the money for sovereign curiosity research should be allocated competitively through existing bodies, the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council grant system.
We need to make it easier to translate research
In addition to fully funding sovereign research capabilities, we also need to rethink how we fund research translation for the public good. This is the process by which we move research from labs or journals into the real world.
When we fund applied research, we must have a strong focus on results. This includes government directing funding for specific missions in areas of national need. This can be long term, with a time frame of five to twenty years.
Independent, expert-based boards would be budgeted to achieve specific goals within a time horizon, and invested by industry, government and research to achieve those goals. This would replace running schedules for translating top-down government priorities.
In addition, we need a new suite of agile bottom-up support for individuals’ ideas. This would also replace existing ones research translation schemes, which have typically been “set-and-forget” investments. without expert oversight during the more than ten-year cycle required to gain globally competitive capability.
Projects should be closely monitored and stopped when progress is deemed insufficient. Expert panels could also work with the private sector to rapidly increase investment in such programs when it makes commercial sense to do so.
Funding programs should pay particular attention to areas of market failure. Such a system should not displace existing private sector technology transferbut doing things that otherwise wouldn’t happen, and better connecting business, government and academia in the research ecosystem.
Blue sky thinking
The basic research conducted at universities underpins the nation’s sovereign ability to increase productivity, improve health and well-being, stay safe, and solve and adapt to challenges facing society. These are the research universities that lead to new products, jobs and industries that were never foreseen at the beginning of the research cycle.
Only work in my own field of astroparticle physics has supported your phone’s WiFi, camera, GPS and touchscreen, not to mention the many recent startups across Australia.
But most of the value created for Australia actually comes from indirect productivity spillovers. These are the people, ideas and capabilities created by Australian research that find their way into Australian society in thousands of ways, enabling us to do more for less.
These are difficult to measure and come about with a significant delay, but our best estimates are that they are large. The government plays a special role in funding this activity, as companies are generally unable to reap the benefits of this work.
International education is becoming increasingly globally competitive. The margin of international student fees that Australian universities rely so heavily on to fund their research is bound to decline in the coming decades.
So as part of a sovereign research capability, Australia should set a minimum level for government-sponsored basic research as a fraction of GDP. This would bring Australia in line with other countries with advanced economies.
And if all universities are expected to do excellent research, a basic amount of research funding should be made available, either through student-based awards or through some other mechanism. Alternatively, new types of future higher education institutions could drop research entirely from their mission.
Making our own luck
Australian universities and their research have improved the lives of Australians and our world for years. The government’s agreement process gives us the opportunity to ensure that our universities can continue to deliver on this promise for our future generations.
But we must act and this action must seriously take stock of the way we fund and translate research in Australia today.
If we fail to value and fund university research in the way we need, and should, the so-called lucky country may be out of luck.
Professor Brian Schmidt is the 2011 Nobel laureate in physics and Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University. This article is based on his individual submission to Universities Accord review.