Correctly setting the dial on research

December 12, 2017
Several people in discussion, with papers and computer on the table
There is a need to improve the processes for, and the outcomes from, the teaching of students at Australian universities. Photo by Štefan Štefančík on Unsplash

The Productivity Commission has added its influential voice to the ongoing debate on the role of universities—in particular, their research and teaching roles.

The long-awaited Shifting the Dial report puts forward a number of proposals to improve the processes for, and the outcomes from, the teaching of students at Australian universities.

However, it emphasises that any changes must not come at the expense of the universities’ research capability.

It is a not a matter of either/or, but both: more and better teaching outcomes; more and better research capabilities.

The report notes that research undertaken at Australian universities has substantial economic and social dividends, in terms of promoting economic and employment growth, and creating new goods and services of value to consumers.

It is also vital for the business models which sustain our universities.

It points out that universities’ research capabilities and output drive their international rankings, which in turn attract international students.

In short, universities can, and do, regard research output (most notably their publications) and the standing of their star academics and faculty as ‘advertising beacons’ for student recruitment and retention showing that research supply drives student demand.

Research undertaken at Australian universities has substantial economic and social dividends.

An economic analysis commissioned by Universities Australia provides some useful estimates of the economic and social impacts of university research.

For example, investment in university research over the past 30 years has added around $10 billion a year to Australia’s national output. Associated improvements in our productivity performance are equivalent to nearly one-third of the growth in average living standards over the same period.

Looked at another way, the stock of knowledge generated by university research is about the same as the entire value-added of the much-higher profile mining, and of the building and construction sectors.

Similarly, research commissioned by the then Department of Education, Science and Training found publicly funded research in Australia generated an economy-wide social rate of return of between 25 and 40 per cent per annum—an enormous dividend by any measure.

Universities have to undertake both cutting edge, world-class research, and deliver teaching outcomes that are valued by their students and other key stakeholders; a mutually beneficial partnership.

© 2020 Australian Academy of Science

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