Uncapping fees: A watershed moment for research as much as teaching?

To borrow from Oscar Wilde: “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” And so it may be for many supporters of the changes to higher education proposed in the Commonwealth Government Budget.

There is little doubt that if fully enacted, Australia will see the largest shakeup of teaching and learning in higher education since the Dawkins reforms of the later 1980s. But the changes may also be a watershed moment for research: where it is done in Australia and how it is funded, as universities come to rely on cross subsidy from student fees. Such cross subsidy may be analogous to the old business model for newspapers, where advertising, ‘the rivers of gold’, paid for journalism.

Like the UK, much of Australia’s research effort is funded by the government, and much of this occurs in universities. Half of Australia’s public universities account for the vast majority of this research output, with a few large universities doing most of the heavy lifting.

The current university research landscape owes much to the creation of the current unified national system (UNS) under former Education Minister John Dawkins. The creation of the UNS led to a greater concentration of research in universities, driven by a performance-based system of competitive grants and research infrastructure block grants. This forces researchers to apply for funding and keeps them coming back as they have little other option. It has enjoyed broad, if often tacit support, because it ostensibly rewards merit and takes away hard decisions for universities and their Deputy Vice-Chancellors (Research) on internal allocation of block funding.

Dawkins created controversy a quarter of a century ago when he shifted research funding toward competitive processes through the Australian Research Council, through what was soothingly known as the ‘claw back’.

Since the Dawkins changes, eight of the 19 pre-1987 universities have dominated the Australian research landscape. Competitive research grants are not the whole picture in terms of funding, and canny institutions are about to resource projects from a number of government and industry sources, such as contract research and co-investment.

But it is possible that the changes announced last Tuesday may mean that the research landscape may change again and many people may be forgiven for concluding not for the better.

Alongside some welcome government expenditure on research (the successful and widely supported Future Fellowships scheme was saved, and there was gap funding for national infrastructure through NCRIS), a number of substantial reductions were made.

The ARC will be cut by $75 million (as part of the drive to apply ‘efficiency dividends’ as widely as possible) and funding was reduced for the Cooperative Research Centre program, which is to be reviewed and will likely not survive. Alongside these headline cuts, the budget reduced funding for other programs and sources of co-investment and contract research which reduce the total amount of research happening in Australia, both in and out of universities.

Even the $20 billion medical research ‘superfund’ will take a very long time to reach full speed and may never deliver as promised if political realities dictate an end to the GP co-payment. A cynical observer might say that it also provides excellent opportunity to rebadge, remix and reduce existing funding.

If the Government decides to cut a little more each year from the total pool of funds dedicated to research, it may rely more heavily on what universities and others can fund from other sources. And surely each slice will be sold as just wafer thin. Overall we may soon have less public funding in real terms for research.

All of which brings us back to uncapped fees. Substantial cross subsidy from student fees may in the not too distant future be unavoidable to maintaining the research effort.

If the Government is genuine in its desire to make our research even better, then forcing a link between research and fees income may not be the way to get there. And there are clearly risks in structurally tying research to student preference for university. Many students would be right to ask what it is that they are paying for - their course or the lab in the room they never enter?

The Dawkins revolution emphasised competition for government research funds. By contrast, Australia may end up with a university research system which is essentially driven by cross subsidy from student fees.