There’s more in the Mail

In Features, David Myton looks at whether universities need to change their ‘scope and purpose’.

Big lift in Australian research

Australian researchers increased their output by 112 per cent in the decade to 2016, according to the Innovative Research Universities Group. This was way ahead of Australia’s competitive set, with UK output up 49 per cent, the US 30 per and all of the OECD 39 per cent. (However, China’s output was 249 per cent.)

Australia is now responsible for roughly 4 per cent of the total scientific output in the Web of Science (database), despite having 0.3 per cent of the world’s population and 1.6 per of world GDP,” the IRU states.

This is not the result of a bigger system, individual academics are also producing more, and better regarded research, with a 48 per cent increase, to 1.1 articles, between 2006-09 and 2013-16. The proportion of research that is highly cited (top 5 per cent in field) grew one per cent, to 6.3 per cent in the same period.

The IRU points out that the growth occurred since the present dual funding system was introduced, in 2001, with block grants going to universities and separate funding allocated to research projects in competitive processes.

The data is released as the IRU releases its submission to the House of Representative’s committee inquiry on research funding (below).

What Defence wants is what it won’t get without an argument

Supplementary submissions to the  Thom Review of the Defence Trade Control Act are due on Monday and learned readers say universities and research institutions will be busy today updating theirs today, to deal with what the Department of Defence is proposing.

The department suggests amending the act, “to allow the Australian Government to more effectively control access to Defence and Strategic Goods List technology and other technology that may be used to prejudice the security, defence or international relations of Australia.”

Other technology” huh. No faulting the department for proposing a broad approach.

UNSW pays for performance

UNSW wants to lift its research reputation and is offering academics incentives, as in cash, to do it. DVC R Nicholas Fisk is telling staff that the UNSW goal, “to be a top 50 university” by 2025 involves improving on an average of the Times Higher, QS and Academic Ranking of World Universities’ citation/publication scores.

Professor Fisk says UNSW needs to lift field weighted citation impacts, highly cited researchers and “our Nature and Science papers.”  He presents six “tips: for improved citation impact,” having an ORCID unique identifier, creating a Google Scholar page, promoting research in social media, engaging with open access, “if a paper is more widely available, it has more chance of being cited,” attending UNSW impact workshops and asking expert staff on profile building.

UNSW is also offering cash incentives. A lead UNSW author will get $500 for published papers that appear in selected prestige publications. There is $1000 for each paper identified in the Times Higher and QS five-year windows as a “highly cited paper” appearing in the Web of Science. UNSW corresponding authors of articles published in Nature and Science will receive $10 000 from the university, with “sliding amounts” for other authors.

And for those who decide this is all too hard UNSW wants to help; creating “over 200-education focused roles across the university for those wishing to move out of teaching/research into teaching-only roles.”

Some researchers are not relaxed with this approach, but at least it is not like China. There are Chinese universities which pay publication bounties, (in some case said to be 20 times an author’s annual salary for a paper in Nature). According to researchers Wei Quan, (Wuhan University) Bikun Chen, (Nanjing University of Science and Technology), and Fei Shu, (McGill University) this can lead to citation and publication gaming. There is, they argue, a “golden rule of academia in China: publish or impoverish.”

Ways into India’s education system

Peter Varghese’s report on Australia doing business with India is out and the former head of DFAT and present chancellor of the University of Queensland does not protect the feelings of anybody in education.

“Despite Australia’s strong international reputation in the education sector and a high quality education ‘system’ as a whole, Indian students perceive Australian education to lack gravitas,” he warns.

This applies to higher education; “many Indian students perceive Australian universities to lack close connections to industry, especially compared to competitor countries like Canada.”

And it explains why VET has not cracked the vast Indian market. “The high volume, low cost model needed for India does not stack up economically for most Australian providers, who operate on a low volume, high cost structure.”

Nor will things get easier on-line. “Competition from domestic local low-cost providers will hinder the rate of adoption of online distance education from international suppliers.”

Mr Varghese suggests practical solutions to problems, most of which will take time but as is clear, Australia has to start somewhere.

The Group of Eight was quick to endorse the Varghese report last night, not least because it has much in common with the Eight’s approach.

“The Go8 welcomes the strategy document, especially the recognition that there is no sector with greater promise for Australia in India than education, and the need to increase and deepen two-way research links. We are delighted to see many of our suggestions reflected in the report, and urge the Turnbull Government to accept the recommendations,” CEO Vicki Thomson said last night.


Hard data on demand for skills

The estimable National Centre for Vocational Education Research has analysed job ads to identify the skills employers want. The unique collection comes from internet jobs-posting data, collected by US labour market analytics provider  Burning Glass.

This can be immensely useful, giving higher education providers hard data on the job market their graduates will compete in. In the case of VET it could give public and private trainers a guide to what programmes to fund and what elements to update in their packages.

First data releases include specialised skills employers asked for in 2014-17. Fastest growing demand was in transport logistics, with logistics analysis accelerating off a low base. There is also industry based data for ICT and telecommunications, childcare and personal care. While the NCVER’s focus is on training, the potential for higher education planners looking for new markets, especially in the micromasters, short course market is immense.

IRU explains how to make a good research funding system better

The Innovative Research Universities lobby says trends in research performance “are overwhelmingly positive” and that “wholesale changes” to the block funding and competitive grant systems, “are not warranted on productivity grounds.”

“The Australian Government should be cautious about making changes which risk undermining the benefits of competitive allocations,” the IRU states in its submission to the new parliamentary inquiry into research funding.

However the IRU does call for more funding for universities, as distinct from money staff win through competitive grants, to “create capacity in regional areas which are isolated from central infrastructure and resources.”

Regional Australian industries need access to locally-based internationally competitive research capacity which the current system is unable to deliver. “

The IRU also proposes the committee consider changes to the competitive grants process, including;

Fund universities to allocate ARC Discovery Early Career Research Awards. “Unsuccessful DECRA applications are more likely to mark the end of a research idea (and potentially a career) than the start of a process of refinement for future funding applications. … Universities are also well placed to identify high potential postdoctoral researchers aligned with institutional strengths, while maintaining external competition.”

A two-stage expression of interest process: This would, “reduce the notification times for unsuccessful applicants and the number of full applications reviewed by the ARC’s experts”.

Publicly rank applications: This would make clearer to ARC applicants whether they should appeal through the rejoinder process.

 A 25 per cent success rate: “The low rate is primarily driven by the level of funding allocated to these schemes, rather than research quality and value. A minimum grant success target of 25% across all programs, with acceptance of 50% as an aspirational target in some, would represent an acceptable balance between the benefits of competition and the cost of the peer-review process.” However, the IRU argues this should not be achieved by spreading existing funding more thinly.

Maintain investment across disciplines and support for fundamental research: “It is difficult to predict where future developments will come from. Continued investment across current and new fields is essential.”

 Support a diverse research workforce: “Funding for training and relevant research programs must be provided to bring the representation towards population relativities. This could be achieved by expanding and enhancing funding already available for indigenous grant schemes to include other diverse populations.

Curriculum review at Adelaide U

The University of Adelaide has launched “a major curriculum review,” led by DVC A Pascale Quester. It will, “ensure a curriculum model for the university that is coherent, fit-for-purpose and highly compelling for diverse student cohorts as they prepare for their futures in the rapidly changing environment of work and society.”

But what, CMM wonders does this mean for former VC Warren Bebbington’s small group discovery model, “in which students work together with a staff mentor in pursuit of new discovery”? So CMM asked and last night the university replied, “As part of developing a new strategic plan we are undertaking a curriculum review and developing a refreshed research strategic plan to build upon the accomplishments of the previous strategic plan.” Good-o but does “build upon: means extend the approach. Or does it means “bury”.

Appointments and achievements of the week  

Colm Harmon moves up at the University of Sydney, from head of the economics school to vice provost for academic performance.

Education academic Jenny Gore (University of Newcastle) is appointed visiting professor at the University of Oxford.

Kerry Sanderson will be the next chancellor of Edith Cowan U. She replaces Hendy Cowan who is to stand-down after 14 years as chancellor. Mrs Sanderson was governor of Western Australia for nearly four years, finishing in May.

Umberto Ansaldo is to join the arts and social sciences faculty at the University of SydneyProfessor Ansaldo is a scholar of linguistic diversity, language contact and multilingualism in Asia. He is now head of humanities at the University of Hong Kong.

David Suter joins Edith Cowan U as a professorial research fellow. The computer vision and machine learning researcher moves from the University of Adelaide.

Jennifer Kay is the new manager of the cooperative research centre programme in the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.

Gary Thomas is the University of the Sunshine Coast’s first dean of indigenous engagement and advancement. Professor Thomas moves from Batchelor Institute, where he was acting CEO. From 2013 to 2017 he was an associate professor at QUT.