The universities researching beyond their means

There are 13 universities who fund research success with international student fees

Frank Larkins and Ian Marshman use discretionary income from international student fees to calculate the loss in revenue available to fund research as enrolments from overseas fall.

In a  new paper for the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education they warn that system-wide international students have been contributing 51 per cent of external research funding, but the pandemic means that this will fall to under 30 per cent from this year. There are 13 institutions which will likely be hit especially hard.

“The research investments made by these thirteen universities have resulted in each improving their international rankings in recent years. Consequently, university international research reputations are significantly at risk because of the research revenue shortfalls,” Larkins and Marshman warn.

Where the hit will be worse: On 2018 figures, they identify the universities more dependent on international student fees to fund research than external sources.

Those at most risk are; UTS and Deakin U (both 134 per cent) and Macquarie U (120 per cent)

A second group are above the system-average; Uni Sydney (86 per cent), Uni Melbourne (68 per cent), UNSW (63 per cent), QUT (56 per cent) and Griffith U (52 per cent).

However not all the Group of Eight have bet the lab on using international fees to fund research. Institutions below the all-uni average are, Uni Queensland (50 per cent), Monash U (42 per cent), Adelaide U (40 per cent) ANU (27 per cent) and UWA (26 per cent).

Why this is horrible for researchers: On the basis of anticipated falls in fee-income and declines in other revenue Larkins and Marshman also estimate a loss of 6 100 FTE research jobs – 11 per cent of the workforce.

“A highly-trained expert research workforce is critical to research success. Inevitable job losses will expose universities to curtailment of strategically important research programmes,” they warn.

And terrible for the country: “Without the same level of discretionary funding available for the next few years there is likely to be a significant loss of research momentum. This outcome will have enduring national and international economic and social consequences. It is unlikely that strengthening industry-university research cooperation will substantially offset the funding shortfall because of the low R&D performance of Australian businesses as a percentage of GDP,” they warn.

What can be done: Larkins and Marshman counsel against wholesale sackings of early career researchers. Rather, they urge “rigorous reappraisals” of universities research programmes and individuals’ performance.   And for optimists, they propose, “restoring as quickly as possible existing international student markets or building new markets in other countries.”

They also advocate a national research council, representing universities, public sector research institutions and industry, “to increase the profile and influence of Australian research.

And they propose government focus support; “a greater concentration of the allocation of public research funding into priority areas with the investment being restricted to those institutions or research teams with a demonstrated track record in the conduct and/or translation of world class research is desirable.”