Category Archives: Research

Pure research at universites increasing absolutely, but declining relatively

I have an article in The Conversation this morning arguing that policy over the last quarter century has made public universities more public than they would otherwise have been. Without external pressures, academics and universities would focus on a narrower range of objectives than governments and public opinion would prefer.

In response, Gavin Moodie observes

I am concerned at the diminution in the importance of pure basic research in Australian universities, which is now very much a minority activity. This is particularly worrying since while there are many other bodies established to conduct applied research, there is no other institution to conduct pure basic research.

While the share of all research that is ‘pure’ (definitions here) has gone down (see yesterday’s post), looking at the absolute spending gives a somewhat different picture. Spending on pure research doubled in real terms between 1992 and 2012, but this is a much lower growth rate than for the more applied types of research.

pure research
Source: ABS

Although I don’t think the trend is as negative as Gavin perhaps does, I have some sympathy for his broader point. While public universities can and should do more than academics are inclined to, their comparative advantage compared to other institutions is likely to be at the more pure end of research. If the government wants more applied research, it should probably steer much of that funding to more specialised organisations with clear commercialisation/practical problem solving goals.

Research commercialisation policy déjà vu

Australian is known as a nation that conducts high-quality basic research, and the Government wishes to maintain this reputation. … The Government considers, however, that a greater proportion of such research should be in fields that have the potential to improve the nation’s competitive position. …. We have a poor record in translating the results of basic research into effective application.

- John Dawkins, Higher Education: a policy discussion paper, December 1987

Overall, the Australian research sector is highly productive, internationally connected, and recognised globally for high quality research. … Despite this strong performance in producing excellent research, our ability to translate publicly funded research into commercial outcomes lags behind comparable countries.

- Christopher Pyne and Ian Macfarlane, announcement of a new research commercialisation strategy, May 2015

There are various perpetual critiques of Australian higher education, and the idea that we don’t do very well in commercialising research is one of them. As the ABS figures reported in the chart below show, there has been a significant shift in research towards the applied end of the spectrum. But it remains the case that Australian businesses infrequently report universities as a major direct source of innovation.

Research type

Perhaps some good will come of the latest round of policy initiatives, but I doubt it will be enough to stop similar analyses being offered 25 years from now. Universities just aren’t particularly well suited to producing commercially-oriented research. They attract people whose main interest is curiosity-driven research, not people who want to make money. Academics are much more likely to apply for grants that don’t involve collaboration with industry than those that do, even though industry grants are easier to get. The university status system is oriented around publications in theoretically-inclined high-prestige international journals, not solving the practical problems of Australian industry. While incentives for particular types of research activity matter at the margins, they are unlikely to change university culture.

New book on the Dawkins higher education revolution

Last night The Dawkins Revolution 25 Years On, which I co-edited with Simon Marginson, Julie Wells and Gwil Croucher, was launched by the Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, with a right of reply by John Dawkins himself.

In my chapter on the Coalition, I described Dawkins as the most important education minister yet to hold office. Gillard’s combined tenures as education minister and then prime minister might yet see her take that title, but for now it is both the scale and durability of what Dawkins did that puts him in the top position.

These include:

* The mergers of many institutions and the transformations of former colleges of advanced education and institutes of technology into universities (discussed in chapters by Simon Marginson and Ian Marshman and Gavin Moodie).

* The introduction of HECS (discussed in a chapter by Bruce Chapman and Jane Nicholls).

* The introduction of a system of setting funding rates by discipline that is still the basis of today’s rates (discussed in a chapter by Ross Williams).

* A substantial expansion in student numbers (discussed in a chapter by Richard James, Tom Karmel and Emmaline Bexley).

* Increased the role of competitive grants in funding research (discussed in a chapter by Gwil Croucher and Frank Larkins).

* Contributed substantially to the opening up of Australian higher education to international students, including a prior period as trade minister (discussed in a chapter by Margaret Gardner).

* Started deregulation of postgraduate coursework markets.

Most reforms since then have built on the foundations of Dawkins. As I argue in my chapter, the 1999 Kemp reform proposals (which I worked on as his higher education adviser) were the only major attempt to over-turn Dawkins in favour of a more market-driven system.

Those reforms were destroyed after the Cabinet submission was leaked to Labor. Ironically, it was Labor ten years later that introduced a version of the ‘voucher’ system proposed in 1999.

The complicated university teaching-research relationship

In The Age this morning, Don Aitken argues that university teaching has come off second best. ‘Today research, and only research, is really important,’ he says.

I certainly think that university teaching needs improving. But the story is not one of the decline of teaching and the rise of research, with one improving at the clear expense of the other.

Up until the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s and early 1990s more than half of higher education students attended colleges of advanced education or institutes of technology. Their mission was teaching rather than research, although some of their academics were doing research. The universities were teaching-research institutions, but with weaker research pressures than today. Most research funding was delivered as a block grant that was (unlike today) not linked to indicators of research performance.

If the teaching-focused colleges of advanced education and institutes of technology were good at teaching, we would expect their positive legacy to show when the first national student survey (the course experience questionnaire) was conducted in the mid-1990s. In reality, the CEQ showed generally dismal results. Across the country, the average positive response to six teaching-related questions was around one-third.

As the government started emphasising research performance in its funding policies, the apparent incentive was to focus on it over teaching. But this is not showing in the trend data (the figure below). The time series was was upset in 2010 in ways that exaggerate satisfaction compared to the past, but the steady upward trend in satisfaction cannot be disputed. (Some theories as to why are here.)


A consistently calculated time series on research productivity only goes back to 1997. It shows steadily increasing productivity up to 2005, where it stablises at an average 2.1-2.2 publications per full-time researcher per year (counting teaching-research staff as 0.4 full-time equivalent in research, in line with common time use expectations).

Publications per academic

Rather than research rising at the expense of teaching, on these indicators they both rose together until the middle of last decade. In research, the focus has shifted to research quality – it’s still too early to put numbers on it, but simultaneous with on-going increases in satisfaction with teaching universities are culling weaker researchers and focusing their investment in areas of relative research strength.

As well as it being difficult to find evidence for research at the expense of teaching over time, our recent Grattan research project failed to find much evidence that low-research departments are better at teaching than high-research departments, as measured by recent student surveys.

My view is that at the dawn of the Dawkins era universities were under-performing institutions, across both teaching and research. Research was further down the path of professionalisation and favoured in academic culture. But both teaching and research needed to improve a lot, and that is what we have seen.

Just removing research and making some universities ‘teaching only’ would not on its own make things better. Improved teaching needs concerted effort, whether or not it occurs in an institution that also produces research.

Not so joined up government

The Government will make changes to the rate of funding for the Sustainable Research Excellence (SRE) program to ensure sustainable growth. … This is estimated to provide savings of $498.8 million over four years.

- Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, 22 October 2012

By 2025, 10 of Australia’s universities will be in the world’s top 100.

- Australia in the Asian Century white paper, 28 October 2012