Australia’s university research boom

Last weekend I posted some concerns about whether ABS research expenditure figures were over-estimates. They may attribute a higher proportion of academic working hours to research than a proper time-use study would show, and therefore put a too-high share of academic salaries into the ‘research expenditure’ column.

On the other hand, research output evidence is consistent with the 21st century research boom suggested by the ABS figures. The number of academic journal articles with at least one Australian author increased dramatically, as seen in the chart below.

Although missing the 1990s comparison, journal article volume data collected as part of the Excellence in Research for Australia exercise shows the same very large upward trend.

The number of books published is flatlining, but academics churned out many more book chapters for the 2018 ERA than the 2010 ERA.

Research degree completions dipped a little in recent years, but in 2018 were still nearly double what they were in 2000.

Trends in patents granted are more volatile, but after a dip a decade ago recovered to new higher levels by the mid-2010s.

There are ways of increasing research output without increasing research spending. Specialised research staff, whose numbers nearly tripled between 2000 and 2018, probably have higher research productivity than staff who teach as well as research.

A very competitive academic employment market (all those PhD graduates…), the rise of short-term employment contracts, and staff performance management have made it harder for less productive academics to stay employed.

Academics typically work more hours than they are paid for, and the ERA report notes that authors who are not paid by universities at all make a significant contribution to university research (although they may be paid by other organisations).

But overall it seems that, while the precise ABS dollar research expenditure estimates may have some question marks around them, the research output data is telling the same story as the research expenditure data. Australian university research boomed in the early 21st century – before COVID-19 intervened.

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