End of story for ranking glory

The government wants research that makes it in markets but is less fussed about international research reps

Sticking to plan: On Friday Education Minister Alan Tudge set out what the government wants from researchers. “We want academics to become entrepreneurs, taking their ideas from the lab to the market. We want them to be properly rewarded for their breakthroughs and their engagement with business. … We know that more innovation activity will lift our nation’s productivity.”

Which is much the same as what his predecessor Dan Tehan thought, “Australia must get better at turning university research into new products and innovation that helps power Australia’s economic recovery, “(CMM November 12).

A win for researchers with ideas to sell : This is good news for the applied research community, indicating no policy change and  perhaps-maybe-possibly, new money for translational research in the budget.

The likely winners appeared pleased. “The Australian government’s commitment to a funding strategy that maps research and commercialisation will deliver gains for universities, business, our economy and most importantly the Australian population,” the Group of Eight announced.

Ditto the Australian Technology Network, “Minister Tudge’s vision for the future of the higher education and research sector is an endorsement of the way ATN universities work.”

But less sunny for blue-sky research: There may not be much room in the funding life boats for pure research teams  across all disciplines who can’t think of way to sell the potential of their work.

“We want our universities to play a bigger role, to not just produce brilliant pure research, but to work more with businesses and governments to translate this research into breakthrough products, new businesses and ideas to grow our economy and strengthen our society,” the minister said.

And it’s rotten for rankings: Lest anyone miss what this means, Mr Tudge made it plain that rankings driven by research metrics, will not be the main game.

“For more than a decade, the focus on international rankings has led to a relentless drive for international students to fund the larger research volumes that are required to drive up the rankings,”

To be clear, we want and need international students in Australia. They have been great for our society, our economy, our diplomacy, and thousands have stayed and become outstanding citizens,” he said. And the minister added;

“COVID presents us with an opportunity to reassess the impact our universities can have, and to refocus on the main purpose of public universities: to educate Australians and produce knowledge that contributes to our country and humanity.”

Smart politics:  Mr Tudge is bomb-proofing the government on higher education. An applied research focus makes it harder for conservatives to attack the government over HE funding. It also gives ministers something to point at when critics complain about levels of funding for teaching and HASS research. And applied research focus that invites STEM lobbies and research-powerful uni alliances into the policy tent makes it harder for them to complain.

And if, or when, Australian universities start to slide in the more serious rankings, due to less international student revenue to resource all research, VCs will be able to avoid the heat, by blaming the government for its applied-focus.

As for the government, ministers will be able to point to Mr Tudge’s plan and say they have made it plain that rankings no longer rate, that universities are tasked with teaching and research that have practical benefits for Australia.