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Educational researchers, show us your evidence but don’t expect us to fund it

The use of evidence to improve teaching quality is central to the federal government’s teacher education reforms. But less than 2% of Australian Research Council (ARC) grants fund educational research.

It’s also concerning that maths and science are well down on the education grants ladder. The Australian Council of Deans of Education (ACDE) 2017 Australian Educational Research Funding Trends report recently revealed maths education research ranks fourth and science tenth. This is a stark contrast to the goals of the National STEM School Education Strategy 2016-2026 and other Australian measures to improve skills for innovation.

This is also at odds with the government’s own innovation agenda. It signals a need for a stronger university-government-industry research culture in Australian educational research to meet these commitments.

The agenda has changed, but the focus of research hasn’t

The ACDE’s recent report finds the focus of funding and conduct of research, as well as the training and development of its researchers and academics has not changed much in the past seven years.

The report reviewed the highest level research grants over nine years to 2017, and found 440 grants for educational research and scholarship came from the ARC. The remaining 39 were funded by the Office of Learning and Teaching (OLT), which disbanded in 2015. The National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) funding outcomes are not included in the ACDE report because they do not have a public searchable grants database.

The ARC Discovery Projects scheme, for pure or basic research, funded 41.3% of the 440 ARC projects. This is despite a review of research policy and funding arrangements in 2015. It recommended a clear move away from pure or basic research, which the government accepted.

But the Linkage Projects scheme, focused on applied research, was the second highest funder (35.7% of grants). It was followed by the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (6.1% of grants) and Future Fellowships scheme (3.3% of grants), both of which are for pure or basic research.

The metropolitan-regional divide

The report also highlights a significant metropolitan-regional divide in Australian educational research. This divide is consistent with broader trends in higher education funding.

Read more: A new approach to regional higher education is essential to our economic future

The Group of Eight (Go8) universities dominated, with 61% of total funding while the Regional Universities Network (RUN) attracted 2% of all funding for education and related projects.

The University of Melbourne was the most successful university in winning education and education-related ARC and OLT grants and fellowships, with 11.90%. Following closely was The University of Queensland with 9.60% and the Queensland University of Technology at 8.35%.

Seven of the top 10 highest-funded projects or fellowships went to Go8 universities. Two went to Australian Technology Network universities and one to the Innovative Research Universities. Regional Universities Network (RUN) universities did not rank in the top 100 highest funded projects. They came in 112th, with A$396,500 awarded for an ARC Discovery project. This finding confirms the Regional Universities Network has had limited success as leading universities of highly-funded ARC and OLT funding schemes in educational research.

Men receive more funding, despite more women in educational research

Teacher education academics represent 3.1% of the full-time Australian university workforce. Men comprise just under 56% of the total university workforce, but only one-third of the workforce in faculties and schools of education.

Although women represent a high proportion of the teacher education population workforce (two-thirds), they are not being awarded the same proportion of funding as their male counterparts. Women lead 54.1% and men 49.9% which is not balanced because men only represent one-third of the education workforce in universities. In the context of the wider gender demographic of the educational research workforce, the system appears to be weighted towards men.

In addition, 22.96% of male lead chief investigators or project leaders were from Go8 universities. The reasons for such gender discrepancies requires deeper investigation.

One-third of educational research projects had no partner

More than two-thirds of all projects partnered with another Australian or foreign university and/or an industry collaborator. The remaining one-third of projects have no partner. This is a concern for Australian educational research, given the review of research policy and funding arrangements and its commitment to improve collaboration between universities and business, and translate research outcomes into educational, social, ecological and economic benefits.

Read more: Starting next year, universities have to prove their research has real-world impact

Deakin University had the highest number of partners across all education or education-related ARC grants. This was followed by the University of Melbourne, Victorian Department Education and Training and the University of Sydney. The Victorian Department of Education and Training was the number one non-university partner across all projects. This demonstrates significant Victorian Government commitment to educational research in Australia.

The ACDE report made 5 key recommendations for the Australian educational research sector:

  1. Increase links between regional and metropolitan institutions through university partnerships in educational research. A greater commitment between Go8 and regional university education researchers in research collaboration, mentoring and coaching is needed.

  2. The Australian Council of Deans of Education (ACDE), the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) and the Australian Research Council (ARC) should support the Community of Associate Deans of Research in Education (cADRE) in continuing research so the sector can be kept up-to-date with educational research trends in Australia.

  3. The educational research sector should engage more explicitly with Australia’s national science and research priorities through transdisciplinary approaches. Such approaches require collaboration outside the education sector, banding with researchers to work towards these priorities in the context of the world’s educational, social, ecological, cultural, technological and economic megatrends.

  4. The ACDE, cADRE, AARE and Go8 universities should provide direct support and professional learning to academics working at non-Go8 universities in writing, winning and leading high-level grants. Such professional learning and mentoring across the sector is particularly urgent to reduce both gender and metropolitan-regional inequities.

  5. Build a stronger university-government-industry research culture through systematic and industry-focused initiatives. This should be done by working with proven industry partners, such as the Victorian Department of Education and Training. This needs to be a highly collaborative exchange between governments and universities in particular.

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