The two research funding questions

The collapse of international student fees is not the only issue 

In 2018 universities spent more of their own discretionary incomes on research and research training than they obtained from external competitive funding.

“The Australian Government has in recent years enjoyed the luxury of universities self-funding up to 50 percent of their R&D activities, principally from entrepreneurial fee-paying initiatives,” Frank Larkins (Uni Melbourne) sets out in a new paper for the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education.

But how the quantum was spent is a problem. In 2008,  50 per cent of university research was “basic-type research” which was down a decade later to 41 per cent.

“The trend away from basic research should be of concern because it is from university investigations that most of the fundamental discoveries are made. … It seems that universities are increasingly having to do more mission-oriented research because of the applied nature of directed funding and the lack of industry commitment.” Professor Larkins argues.

Which means there are now two research funding issues.  One is the need to replace the “several billion dollars” from their own earnings universities could spend on research, prior to the COVID-19 crunch.  Professor Larkins suggests the $900m National Priorities and Linkage Fund Minister Tehan proposes is a start. But it does not address the second; “it is clearly in the national interest for governments to increase their commitments to university research, including to basic research. It is through basic research that new knowledge is discovered leading to translational research and wealth creation for the nation.