Big winners in science research (shame about the humanities)

In science the research performance gap is narrowing but humanities disciplines, especially in younger universities appear, but perhaps only appear, to underperform

Australian universities have improved science research performance, with some spectacularly lifts in the Excellence in Research for Australia, according to Frank Larkins (emeritus professor, Uni Melbourne).

Professor Larkins has analysed research performance by discipline group for Australian universities, for the L H Martin Institute. This work builds on his recent discipline analysis (CMM May 1).

What he’s done: Professor Larkins collects universities other than the Go8 and the technology specialists into pre and post 1987 groups. He examines the performance of each university in every group on the number of two-digit research codes ERA-rated at above, or well above world standard, for broad science and humanities and social science groups.

Success in the sciences: The Group of Eight universities increased least in science disciplines rated above or well above, world standard in the three ERA ratings – largely because they started close peak to performance. But Professor Larkins says the lift among other universities, “is exceptional”.

The Go8 improved their above world standard rating in broad science fields from 83 per cent in ERA 2012 to 100 per cent in 2018.

In contrast, the technology unis improved by 27 per cent to 87 per cent, the pre-’87 group lifted from 33 per cent to 75 per cent and the post ‘87s from 18 per cent to 61 per cent.

The biggest improvers: Across the country, the universities with the largest increase in above world-class science research ERA ratings were: Curtin U and QUT (eight disciplines each), UTS and Uni Southern Queensland (seven each), Griffith U, La Trobe U, Macquarie U and Edith Cowan U (six) and Swinburne U, UNE, Uni Wollongong and Victoria U (all lifted by five).

No new HASS heroes: ERA outcome in humanities and social science discipline are spectacularly different – far worse for all universities outside the Group of Eight.

The percent of HASS disciplines rated above world standard in Go8 universities increased from 77 per cent to 86 per cent between 2012 and 2018. However, for the technology universities the increase was from 19 per cent to 25 per cent, for the pre-‘87s it was 14 per cent to 23 per cent and the post ‘87s, 27 per cent to 35 per cent.

Is HASS under-performing?: Professor Larkins suggests that the apparent under-performance of HASS could be due to its “stronger emphasis” on peer-review which may be tougher. In comparison, “as more universities in developing countries publish in science journal there is the likelihood that world standards for some disciplines, as measured by the world average citation rate per paper, have declined over time.”

“The problem,” he suggests, “has been recognised for many years but apparently not addressed by the Australian Research Council.”

Why it matters: “The consequences of discrepancies in standards can be very serious for university departments in terms of the perceived relative excellence of disciplines within an institution and the research funding consequences,” Professor Larkins warns.

“The three ERA rounds have demonstrated very clearly that if a university aspires to increase its overall research standing, including international rankings, then an investment in science related disciplines is more likely to provide a better dividend than investment in the humanities and social science disciplines. This approach may not be in the national interest of preserving breadth and strength in course and subject offerings.”


to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education