Comment—Restructuring of the Higher Education Council and the Australian Research Council

On 9 August 1996, the Academy made the following comment on the restructuring of the Higher Education Council and the Australian Research Council.

The functions of these two Councils, and constituent committees, may be defined in broad terms.

Higher Education Council

To advise the Commonwealth government on the higher education sector generally, while recognising the importance of allowing each individual university to develop in its own way.

Matters of policy of concern for a national government that we consider to be appropriate for the HEC include, for example

  • the level of national investment in university teaching and research needed to support national goals for economic, social and cultural development, for protection of the nation's environment, and to contribute Australia's share to the global pool of knowledge and skills
  • the balance of expenditures in the various disciplines covered by universities and the identification of any areas of unmet need
  • an overview of the tertiary student population, both local and overseas-sourced, and the place of graduate study in the tertiary sector.

It should not be the role of the HEC to direct individual universities in the way they set or carry out their objectives. Programme administration such as institutions' operating grants, and the Research Quantum, should remain with the Department.

Australian Research Council

  1. To allocate research funds, by peer assessment of the merits of applications, for research in universities and research institutes.
  2. To determine the distribution of its research funds between the major fields of research.
  3. To advise the Minister and the Higher Education Council on policies related to research in the tertiary sector, including the Research Quantum, and on the funding of Special Research Centres and the Australian National University.
  4. To allocate funds, according to government guidelines, to the learned Academies and to other institutions supporting research.
  5. To allocate funds for major national facilities and to conduct occasional reviews of their operation.

To perform these functions, the new ARC should be more independent of government than its predecessor, with control of its own administration.

The ARC should have both a policy and a program delivery role, but the two roles need to be separated.

The Academy recommends that the research-granting function should be performed by a committee of the Australian Research Council, a Research Grants Committee, with a membership distinct from that of the ARC, except that at least its Chair, and possibly some other members, would be ex officio members of the ARC.

The ARC should not be expected to monitor the expenditure of grants by individual researchers. That is the responsibility of their peers and their institutions. Researchers whose work is judged by their peers to be of low quality will fail to win new competitive funding.

For the purpose of its policy and program advice, the membership of the ARC should include a higher proportion of people drawn from beyond the research community.

For the purpose of assessing the annual funding proposals of the Academies, an Institutional Grants Committee of the ARC should be established. It would meet once each year to consider the grant proposals in the light of the Guidelines, and to advise the ARC.

The ARC should not be required to seek Ministerial approval for the distribution of research grants.

The Research Grants Committee (of the Australian Research Council)

To recommend to the ARC the award of research funds, within the sums allocated to disciplines by the ARC, after evaluation of applications from researchers.


The membership of the ARC and the RGC are distinguished to avoid a potential conflict of interest arising from the Council's advisory and funding roles. The membership of both would be determined by the Minister, but the membership of the RGC would be based on the expertise needed for competent evaluation of proposals.

On matters of policy, the ARC should be free to advise both the minister and the HEC.

The funding and review of Cooperative Research Centres should remain a direct responsibility of the Department of Industry, Science and Tourism.

A further period of consultation should be provided after the federal budget has been brought down. The role of the HEC in particular needs more discussion.

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