Response—The West report

On 29 June 1998, the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences made the following response to the West Report.


General comments

The Academies support West's recommendations that a wide opportunity be maintained for access to higher education in Australia, particularly for young Australians, but finds the report inadequate as a guide to implement this if the quality of Australia's tertiary education system is to be maintained. In particular

  • Funding levels per student in Australia have been substantially reduced. International benchmarking would have revealed that we are trying to run a university system on a much cheaper basis than comparable countries. The West Committee's recommendation that real funding should simply be maintained rather than increased runs the risk of substantial reduction in the quality of the university system.
  • The current formulas for funding, including such components as the Research Quantum, have tended to make the system more uniform. The failure of the West Committee to consider the question of how many institutions of the highest research and teaching quality can be supported is a key issue.
  • While the report supports the need for diversity in the system, it proposes only the means of student choice to address this. In the Academies' view this is too coarse and, without sufficient mobility of students, could be a destructive method for re-shaping Australian higher education into the next decade. The major task of reinforcing existing quality in teaching and research, of fostering new initiatives requires concerted policy over longer periods than is provided by 'market place' ideology.
  • the success of the higher education system in attracting fees appears to have outweighed the central cultural contribution of university life. The prevailing concept throughout the report of the university as an industry fails to address such matters as maintaining the quality of university research and teaching across all subjects at a high international standard. The failure of the report to recognise postdoctoral training and its international implications is a serious defect. There is a significant imbalance between resources for training PhDs and postdoctoral fellowships and the Academies favour an expanded postdoctoral fellowship scheme with the creation of a career path for the best young academics.

The Academies have prepared the outline of an alternative model for university funding. Policies for research quality and research funding are essential components of a model for greater differentiation and new opportunities. The Academies do not in any way de-emphasise West's insistence on resources and rewards for teaching performance but, in addition, suggest a means to foster high-calibre research and better use of available resources. This model recognises the close link between scholarship at the highest level and international reputation. The model also includes changes to the mechanism for funding infrastructure.

The Academies agree with the West Review that additional funds for research infrastructure are needed. As the West report acknowledges, the issues relating to university research infrastructure are complex because infrastructure is shared by teaching and research functions which interact closely at many levels. Infrastructure is shared across projects, project teams, departments, schools, faculties, universities and research institutions.

The Academies believe strongly that it is in the national interest that pluralism in university funding from a reconstructed Higher Education Council (HEC), and bodies like the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council, should be maintained to promote diversity. The role of a reconstructed HEC should be enhanced to provide greater input to the decisions of Government on higher education. The membership of the HEC should be selected to ensure a broadly-based view of the objectives of higher education is available to the Government.

Model for the allocation and funding of research and research training

To produce an alternative to the student choice method of university differentiation favoured by West, the Academies have consulted widely and in particular examined the recent ten years experience of the UK system.

Key features of the Academies' model relate to our having formed a positive impression of the present acceptability and operation of that system.

We suggest

  • introduction of five-yearly assessments of the research performance by field of research in universities on a discipline basis
  • block grants (i.e. operating grants) to universities for research and research training, based on the results of the five yearly reviews. The block grants would be for research infrastructure support including items of equipment up to a value of $1M
  • additional infrastructure support for research would be linked to competitive research grants to individuals and centres of research concentration
  • equipment items in excess of $1M would be from a central contestable fund, which would also provide for collaborative infrastructure
  • provision would be made for the funding establishment and on-going costs of major national facilities and access to major international facilities
  • the funding of research and training should be more closely coupled. The reasons for and results of the expansion of PhDs need to be examined. New policy settings may be needed.

The main benefit of the model would be

  • focusing resources on areas of research excellence recognising that some universities may have strong research centres in many disciplines and others may have strengths in perhaps one or two areas.

Research assessment

The Academies recommend the concept of a funding scheme based on a university's performance on a field-of-research basis. A research assessment would be undertaken every five years, based on retrospective and prospective performance. In the initial round all of the fields would be assessed concurrently.

Universities should be required to meet particular standards of supervision, infrastructure, a minimum number of research student completions and particularly a minimum number of research-active staff. The performance thresholds would be specific to a particular field of research but set broadly as is now seen to be desirable in the British Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The assessment teams would comprise external expertise, including international participants.

Based on the outcome of the assessment process, university research would be funded according to five grades and there would be a minimum performance level. Unlike the RAE in which lowly ranked departments gain little or no funding, universities would receive some base level funding for the output of all research-active staff under this model. The 1995 Quality round provides a useful starting point.

The input to the five-yearly assessments would be through the university which would have aggregated departmental submissions to identify the university's own priorities for research.

One of the criticisms of the RAE has been the amount of resources needed to administer it. One option would be to introduce a greater degree of self assessment and an appropriate audit.

Funding

Funding for university research would be provided via

(a) DEETYA block-funding based on the assessments discussed above.

  • An underlying infrastructure component for university control for research facilities and technical and research support staff.
  • The block grant should include some funding for major items of equipment (say $25K -$1M) to be allocated to departments by the university on a competitive basis.
  • A component related to matching funds for shared research outcomes including regional and industrial collaboration.

(b) Block funding for major research programs e.g. IAS, NH&MRC. Institutes should continue to be reviewed as is current practice.

(c) Competitive research grants to individual or groups of researchers from the ARC, NH&MRC and other bodies. A project grant should include the expenses of consumable items (e.g. chemicals, enzymes, field expenses) as well as the support for postdoctoral researchers and research assistance where appropriate, and special equipment needs for the project. The university should receive at least 40c/$ of the full salary costs to contribute to infrastructure costs.

APAs

The Academies recommend that awards should be made to university departments on the basis of the field of research assessment discussed above. The aim is to match student training and research performance and supervision capability. In the allocation of the APAs, undergraduate performance plus any indication of research capability (e.g. based on the Honours research year, or equivalent) would be the selection criteria.

In the national interest, there may be on occasion a need to identify priorities in research training that selectively support certain disciplines. The system must be sufficiently flexible to accommodate these needs.

Whatever scheme for supporting research training is adopted, it should ensure that there is more mobility of students away from their undergraduate institution than is presently the case.

ARC

The Academies favour some separation of policy and program elements to avoid the potential for a conflict of interest.

The Academies recommend that the ARC function as a Board with the appointment of a part-time Chair and full-time CEO who has ministerial delegation. This would involve the appointment of Program Administrators drawn from academia on secondment for a specified term, e.g. three years, up to a maximum of five years. The ARC should have full control over its own administration.

The present structure of ARC Discipline Panels should be maintained with a peer review system continuing to allocate research grants.

The Academies believe it is vital to protect the current pluralistic arrangements for research funding, while providing mechanisms for accountability and priority-setting at the national level. Priority setting should be done at the broadest level. Within fields, priorities should be determined by the quality of the project alone, and the priority setting comes into play in determining allocations between fields.

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

© 2017 Australian Academy of Science

Top