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Future of higher education: ‘The situation in research is clearly unsustainable’

This is an extract taken from the second edition of Raising the Stakes: Gambling with the Future of Universities, by Peter Coaldrake and Lawrence Stedman, and published by University of Queensland Press

In the absence of solid evidence about quality and standards, widespread concern has emerged that our university system is unsustainable.

Those providing the money worry that it is unsustainably expensive, while many of those inside the sector catastrophise that it is under-resourced to the point of becoming unsustainable.

These concerns persist despite decades of almost continual review and re-review, much of which have produced little tangible evidence about perceived problems.

To date Australia has managed to strike a balance which has seen public expenditure for higher education and research stay at around 1% of GDP over the past quarter of a century, compared to around 1.4% across the OECD, despite massive increases in research funding and a doubling in the number of Australian students enrolled in universities.

This has been achieved by controlling access to public subsidies, capping numbers of students, controlling fees and increasing the share of fees to be repaid by students. Now things have changed. The aim of extending higher education to all those who might benefit from it was always somewhat at odds with the maintenance of caps on student enrolments.

And the removal of the lid in 2012 led to enrolments shooting up, further cementing the idea of university as a mainstream aspiration. There was little political support for reapplying caps on student numbers; however, rapid growth in enrolment meant that government spending also rose rapidly.

Whether the spending growth driven by unchecked university expansion can be sustained within current settings is debatable, and growth has slowed in more recent years.

The sector cannot hope to be protected indefinitely from cuts when the government is under pressure to support costs associated with ageing, defence and healthcare, and broader national infrastructure.

Nor is the university sector by any means the government’s major priority in education: funding for schools and vocational training are both acute challenges and universities are just part of the continuum needed to educate and develop the workforce of the future.

Governments might acknowledge the importance of higher education and research but they have been exasperated on a regular basis with the sector’s tendency to be self-absorbed about its importance, to complexify and exaggerate its problems, and to be habitual mendicants.

One of the results of this has been to seek reductions in government spending on universities.

Throughout 2015 and 2016 the savings associated with the 2014 deregulation package continued to be factored into government budgets despite ongoing rejection of the reforms by the Senate. This amounts to a short-fall of some four billion dollars, and while the 2016-2017 budget reduced the expected savings to around two billion dollars, the sector remains highly vulnerable when reality finally hits.

Savings will either be forgone, testing further the willingness of government to increase direct outlays to universities, or they will not, and other offsets will need to be found.

Put even more bluntly this means either that students will pay more, or universities will take a cut or, more likely, a combination of the two will emerge.

What is even more clearly unsustainable is the situation in research.

Over the ten years to 2013 governments doubled medical research grant funding in real terms and increased general university research grants from the Australian Research Council by 70%. In contrast, infrastructure grants only grew by 25%. Over this time the number of academics notionally involved in research grew by 37%, slightly less than growth in student load.

Yet despite increases in grant funds far outstripping growth in the academic population, demand for research grants has far exceeded supply, with success rates for grant applications falling to record lows. This has come about partly because more funds have been concentrated on the most successful applicants, and proposals to extend the duration of project funding would exacerbate this.

Perhaps more significantly it has also come from the heightened stakes attached to external research funding for individual academics and for institutions.

Global and national rankings, national audits of quality and funding formulas with further rewards for the successful all serve to reinforce the primacy of academic research as a marker of excellence directly impacting on reputation.

Australia must strengthen its research base, but governments will not pour more money into the black hole of research indefinitely, even for medical research which usually and understandably attracts political favour.

The solution is not to spiral inwards with an ever greater concentration on past glories or to pick winners or favoured universities. However, Australia’s future challenges are diverse and demand a research base that is also diverse and vibrant.

The reality is that most research funding will find its way into the most research-intensive universities.

Yet we need to be able to develop new fields, including interdisciplinary work that tackles our greatest national and global challenges.

We must find ways of sustaining excellence on many fronts and in many places, which in turn will need sustained commitment of public funding together with healthy competition and fundamental changes in research expectations, academic roles, and institutional ability in order to match rhetoric about strategy and selective strength with effective action.