Australian universities are facing their greatest financial and policy crisis for many decades. The impact on university research is profound. This is a national issue given the dependency on a vibrant research and innovation sector to promote economic prosperity, job creation and community social wellbeing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the fragility and vulnerability of our university research enterprises with the whole of university revenue shortfalls and the associated research component totalling several billion dollars over the next five years.

The loss of student fee revenue and other discretionary income has impacted adversely on the future capacity of universities to deliver research outcomes and to train the next generation of students with the knowledge and skills required to meet national expectations. Research performance and the international standing of institutions, including rankings, are at risk because of the pandemic.

It is timely for a national conversation on how to build a more robust university research framework in the context of a national research policy. The cooperation of all research-related sectors will be required. Acknowledgement by the federal government that there is indeed a crisis in university research funding requiring a policy response is a pre-requisite to establishing a viable environment for future programmes.

The initiatives that need to be taken include the following:

* In the immediate term priority must be on restoring existing student markets and identifying new and emerging ones. The cross-subsidisation of research from overseas student income will remain a core contributor to funding university research into the foreseeable future

* government needs to collaborate with the sector on a national higher education policy that enables Australian universities to deliver world-class research outcomes with less longer-term reliance on overseas student fees. The current proposal reportedly to bring forward $700m of planned future funding is only a “Band-Aid” solution. New and targeted funding of several billion dollars over the next five years will be required

* individually, universities will need both to find substantial expenditure savings and to identify alternative sources of revenue growth that sustainably maintain and diversify the funding of research

* collectively universities must identify an alternative career framework for researchers and research assistants that reduces their exposure to unconscionable and increasingly indefensible employment uncertainty. Improving career structures must be a core part of any long-term research solution

* a national research strategy must resolve the vexed issue of the underfunding of the indirect costs of competitive research grants and contracts. The US government has developed indirect cost rate policies used for all federal awards, grants, and cooperative agreements and implemented through agencies such as the National Science Foundation  and the National Institute of Health. The Australian government urgently needs a similar structured process that acknowledges the real costs of quality research

* the productivity of government-funded grant programmes and associated accountability requirements needs major improvement. There are too many granting schemes, too low success rates and too much bureaucracy involved in accounting for research activities. The ARC ERA programmes is a classic example of overreach. Early exercises in 2010 and 2012 assisted universities to remodel their research programmes. However, by 2018 serious anomalies were emerging, with  benefits to universities becoming marginal and administratively burdensome

* a national university research policy needs to establish national research priorities and increasingly allocate research funding towards these priorities. This would have the benefit of universities focusing, and investing, more on their strengths while rationalising under-performing programmes and researchers.

* Australia has a modest but high-quality contribution to make to world new-knowledge generation and translational research. It is essential to have the local expertise to evaluate and adapt the knowledge created elsewhere in the world for Australia’s economic benefit. Consequently, effective collaboration between the various research sectors in Australia is vital to ensure these outputs remain competitive to facilitate international engagement. Government incentives for industry to increase their R&D performance to the OECD GDP average would promote research collaborations and national research productivity.

* In the context of maintaining a robust national policy framework, an independent Research and Innovation Council with representatives from universities, private research institutes, R&D-oriented industry and publicly-funded governments research agencies, has an important role. It would serve as a well-informed forum for policy advice to government on national research and innovation priorities. It could play a vital advocacy role in promoting to the community the national benefits of a strong R&D sector.

 The COVID-19 pandemic is a serious wake-up call as to the precariousness of Australian university research and innovation. It requires prompt and comprehensive responses on the part of both governments and universities.

Larkins and Marshman are honorary fellows at the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education


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