Submission—The capacity of public universities to meet Australia's higher education needs

On 26 April 2001, the Australian Academy of Science made the following submission to the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education References Committee on the capacity of public universities to meet Australia's higher education needs.


Summary

For the Australian higher education system to continue to support a broad intake of students, there needs to be greater diversity in university profiles in teaching and research (para 2). This cannot be attained with the funding models that promote uniformity in the national unified system. This is especially in the case of the enabling sciences (paras 4, 19). A sustainable model that promotes excellence in both teaching and research requires four key changes in funding models. There are solutions for both teaching and research.

  1. The present system of under-graduate enrolment targets constrain the student enrolment profile. Targets should be replaced with a minimum enrolment requirement. Universities should receive additional public funds on the basis of achieved numbers of Australian students. This model would provide options to allow individual universities greater choice in meeting the needs of students and researchers (paras 5, 8).
  2. The Academy favours a greater concentration of research excellence than is currently the case (para 3). This could be achieved either through an Australian form of a research assessment exercise or, by the recently announced increase in Australian Research Council funding being directed towards research program (team) grants (paras 9, 10).
  3. The funding of research infrastructure should be linked to research performance, with a large fraction of infrastructure funds being tied to competitive grants. Granting bodies would then be obliged to provide a funding level closer to the true cost of research (para 17).
  4. The Academy believes that it is in the national interest that universities be funded at arms length from government. The synergy of the relationship that could be achieved between a Higher Education Funding Council and the existing research councils would allow a pluralism of funding mechanisms. This would encourage innovation and diversity (para 35).

Introduction

The Australian Academy of Science is an independent, non-profit organisation of over 300 of Australia’s leading research scientists. The Academy emphasises the importance of scholarship and research within the university system and the vital contribution of science and technology to economic growth, quality of life and environmental sustainability.

The role of universities is

  • to act as a reservoir of knowledge available to meet the needs of government, industry and the community;
  • to husband knowledge, past and present, and pass it on to the new generation of students;
  • to train the next generation of researchers; and
  • to contribute to advancements of new knowledge by scholarly activities and research.

The knowledge produced by universities contributes to the cultural needs of the nation, to social and economic development and management of the environment. This is a long-term benefit and its value has been re-emphasised by Alan Greenspan [1].

What has made research universities so extraordinarily productive is their promotion of peer-reviewed scholarship and the value they place on creativity and risk-taking. Although some innovations move quickly from the development stage to applications, more often we cannot accurately predict which particular scientific advance, or synergy of advances, will ultimately prove valuable.

What universities produce is highly valued in today’s economy … The most significant challenge facing universities is the need to ensure that teaching and research continue to unleash the creative intellectual energy that drives the system forward. The challenge for institutions of higher education is to successfully blend the exposure to all aspects of human intellectual activity, especially or artistic propensities and technical skills.

Overwhelmingly, with the increasing scientific knowledge base, our universities are going to have to struggle to prevent the liberal arts curricula from being swamped by technology and science. It is crucial that that not happen.

The objectives of research of high international standard are to provide the nation with

  • the latest knowledge, and technical advances, and applications;
  • high level skills and skills training in research including the use of new instrumentation;
  • access to global networks and front-line research internationally.

Comment

Scholarship is the missing word in the current debate on higher education. It is the necessary balance and underpinning to the prevalent emphasis on 'linkage'. Scholarship feeds and renovates the knowledge base and the Academy is concerned that we are mining to exhaustion a finite resource of excellence built by past concentrations of resources. There is a serious question of the sustainability of the higher education system caused by current and long established higher education policy [2].

The adequacy of current funding arrangements with respect to:

the capacity of universities to manage increasing demand

  1. The almost doubling in the number of universities since 1986, and the large increase in student numbers has strained the budget for higher education. Australia is trying to run an expanded university system on a much cheaper basis than many comparable countries. The funding environment has been based on demonstrating efficiency through cost reductions, rather than through the greater quality of the courses the universities provide and the research they undertake.
  2. The Academy has argued in a number of submissions that the funding of all institutions in the unified national system for internationally competitive research across all disciplines is not affordable [3]. There has been a serious shortfall in funds available to maintain buildings, essential equipment and journals in libraries. It is not possible without greatly increased funding for all the universities to attain international distinction in research and scholarship across a range of disciplines. Policy incentives to diversify and specialise universities’ academic goals are needed which go beyond the present student demand driven formulae.
  3. Since 1990, the numbers of graduates proceeding to some form of postgraduate education including PhD training has increased significantly. An issue for the review is whether postgraduate courses and PhD training should be spread across the university system or whether they should be concentrated in fewer universities or departments. PhD training in science and engineering usually requires up-to-date equipment and it benefits from a critical mass of researchers. The Academy believes that PhD scholarship should generally be awarded to gifted graduate students rather than to an institution or department, but it supports the linking of some scholarships to competitive research grants, which would ensure that good PhD students have access to the best researchers.

institutional autonomy and flexibility

  1. There is no guarantee that national needs will be met when universities exercise autonomy. Universities enjoy reasonable autonomy, though the constraints of funding strongly linked to fashions in student demand are seriously affecting the survival of many departments in the 'enabling' sciences of chemistry, physics and mathematics. For many, the current level of operating grant gives little scope to experiment with courses to provide adequate resources for practical and field work, to develop new staff, and invest in major infrastructure.
  2. There is no one ‘best’ way to meet the needs of students and community. Funding models should provide options that allow individual universities greater choice in determining their future so that they are best able to meet changing demand. Institutional autonomy does not end with the setting of the price of the principal product, such as the cost of overseas studentships. Universities have a responsibility to meet the needs of the nation.
  3. The Academy believes that student quality, as well as demand and employer needs, should be the main factors in determining the courses offered by a university at the undergraduate level. For graduate courses and PhD training, the availability of the appropriate infrastructure is essential. National needs may require centralised decisions in some circumstances, (such as with the current initiatives for information technology and major national facilities). These decisions might be taken by a restructured Higher Education Council or equivalent. However, on the whole, individual universities should have charge of their planning and operations.

the quality and diversity of teaching and research

  1. An emphasis on the quality of outcomes, equal to the emphasis on student demand, must be built into the funding formulae. The challenge is to create diversity, but at the same time retain international quality in Australian university research.
  2. The Academy believes there is scope for greater variability in salaries and student-to-staff ratios in universities and departments within universities. There should be rewards to individuals for good teaching as well as good research. Universities and departments with a significant research activity could have lower student-to-staff ratios.
  3. The Academy has advocated the introduction of a Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) to measure research quality. The funding formula in the current higher education White Paper is inadequate because the component of assessed output quality, assessed by international standards, is set too low. An RAE adapted to the Australian system would make in depth assessments of the quality of research in each discipline within higher education institutions. The Academy has prepared a paper on a suggested model for Australia based on a broad basket of indicators so as to encourage a diversity of university goals [4]. Such an exercise, as elsewhere, would improve national R&D performance over time, direct research fund to sustain and create excellence, maintain diversity in the unified higher education system and provide a robust and accountable system to government on university research funding.
  4. The Academy sees merit in the Australian Research Council (ARC) adopting the National Health and Medical Research Council practice of supporting research program grants which would encourage a concentration of research excellence. The Academy has commented on the low success rate of ARC grant applications and now with increased funds available more attention should be given to group rather than individual research.

The effect of increasing reliance on private funding and market behaviour on the sector’s ability to meet Australia’s education, training and research needs, including its effect on:

the quality and diversity of education

  1. Higher private contributions from students (HECs payments) have been used to substitute for, rather than add to, government funds to finance growth in the sector. The money generated through HECS, and other sources (such as fees), is more volatile than state funding. This has caused major problems for long term scholarly agendas. Australian public university tuition fees are amongst the highest in the world, when normalized on a per capita basis. Ireland and Scotland have abolished fees and few European countries have fees at all [5].
  2. Commercially sponsored research is putting at risk the paramount value of higher education – disinterested inquiry. It is a growing perception that universities themselves are behaving more and more like for-profit companies. Corporations not only sponsor a growing amount of research, they frequently dictate the terms under which it is conducted. The freedom of universities from market constraints is precisely what allowed them in the past to nurture the kind of open-ended basic research that led to some of the most important (and least expected) discoveries in history, such as the structure of DNA.

the production of sufficient numbers of appropriately-qualified graduates to meet industry demand

  1. The production of an appropriately skilled workforce is a central remit of the higher education system. Industry demand is for high quality graduates with confidence in their discipline. For scientists, adequate training in research, as well as some knowledge of project planning and execution are desirable.
  2. The differential between HECS levels for science and mathematics and a number of other university courses can discourage students from studying science, to the extent that first year students make their study choices based on the cost of courses. Australia has a shortage of well-educated science and mathematics teachers and the present HECS charges provide an incentive not to become a science teacher. The Academy favours a flat rate of HECS which can be cost neutral.
  3. The Academy argues that vocational courses should have a strong foundation in rigorous academic disciplines and complement the more focussed vocational training available through TAFE or other advanced colleges carrying out non-academic career training.

the adequacy of campus infrastructure and resources

  1. The Academy has been concerned for a number of years about the decline in infrastructure and resources in universities. We would define infrastructure broadly to include technicians, workshop and general staff who provide a resource and continuity. Basic requirements such as access to journals, both paper and electronic, the provision of teaching laboratory resources and major research equipment needs to be addressed. For example, in a recent national meeting of scientists it was emphasised that the universities did not need funding for more science places but a higher level of funding per science EFTSU to keep standards up. A consequence of current excessively high teaching loads is that academic staff have inadequate time for preparing new methods of course delivery, for example, in experimental subjects. In the international market for top-quality staff, Australian universities are becoming increasingly uncompetitive. This will have serious long-term implications for the quality of our universities’ research and their international standing.
  2. An important issue is the level of infrastructure funding for research training beyond that provided for undergraduate training and Master's courses. The Academy believes that funding of research infrastructure in a university should be linked to research performance, which includes the impact of research as well as output. The Academy favours a large fraction of infrastructure funding being tied to competitive grants. Granting bodies would then be obliged to provide a funding level, which is closer to the true cost of the research. This raises the question of whether infrastructure should be funded by way of a specific block grant to the institution, which would vary from university to university, or as a component of competitive grants. The Academy supports the concept of a Higher Education Funding Council independent of the Research Funding Councils of the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council. Thus funding would be provided through a research assessment process, and the other, through the linking of grant success.

the maintenance and extension of Australia’s long-term capacity in both basic and applied research across the diversity of fields of knowledge

  1. The great universities of the world share a number of features. Above all, they have vigorous, internationally recognised research in the great majority of their disciplines. They attract and retain outstanding academic staff and outstanding graduate students seeking training in research. Good facilities for research and a capacity to fund or to support research as it evolves. In many disciplines, particularly those that depend on costly equipment, such as in the physical sciences, teams are important and usually are built up over a number of years. The Academy considers it is crucial for the future international competitiveness of Australia that sufficient numbers of our best students are attracted into science and engineering courses.
  2. In Australia, the 'enabling sciences' such as physics, chemistry and mathematics are in decline. Many departments have closed due to static or declining enrolments and the high cost of maintaining up-to-date equipment. An Academy submission to the Chief Scientist’s Australian Capacity Science Review [6] pointed out that a survey in 1997 of 20 Australian physics departments showed a 16.5% loss in academic staff (from 310 to 259) and an 18.7% loss in general staff (from 278 to 226) over the period 1994-1997. The situation is similar in chemistry and mathematics and has deteriorated significantly since 1997. The result is that many departments are no longer capable of offering serious opportunities for student research even at the honours level. Obviously, there is not the demand to justify a fully-fledged department with the appropriate academic and research expertise in the essential sub-disciplines of, for example, physics in each of the 37 universities of the unified national system. Opportunities should be made available for academics teaching in universities that lack adequate research facilities so that they can do collaborative research with colleagues in better equipped departments.
  3. Mathematics is in crisis. This is illustrated by an acute shortage of appropriately qualified teachers, falling enrolments in advanced level mathematics course both in schools and universities, the collapse of university mathematics and statistics, and a brain drain of many of Australia’s best mathematical scientists, especially, but not exclusively to the United States [7].
  4. Teaching and research in information, communications and technology (ICT) in Australian universities is deteriorating due to difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff, with a consequent rise in teaching loads and reduction in research times. Large salary differentials between universities and industry result in a brain drain to industry. This decline in teaching and research staff, combined with increasing numbers of undergraduate students places further stress on the system and has serious consequences for the ability to train the next generation of ICT specialists [8].
  5. The international dimension of university research is very important to the health and impact of Australian science. Apart from ensuring the exchange of leading-edge knowledge, international links enhance the country's ability to attract to its universities and other laboratories the world's top scientists and scholars. An Academy report indicated the importance of overseas postdoctoral experience in establishing and maintaining international links. Australia must ensure that there is a future for our talented young researchers, that critical masses in researchers and infrastructure are reached and maintained [9].

the operations and effect of universities’ commercialised research and development structures

  1. There are too many university commercialisation arms [10]. The Chief Scientist’s idea of regional centres was a good one. Again, collaboration between universities is needed. These university commercial arms are working at the hardest part of the innovation system and need a high level of specialised expertise.

public liability consequences of private, commercial activities of universities

No comment

the equality of opportunity to participate in higher education

Most universities have access outreach plans to minorities and indigenous groups.

the factors affecting the ability of Australian public universities to attract and retain staff in the context of competitive local and global markets and the intellectual culture of universities

  1. There is considerable concern about the ‘brain drain’ from Australia. The FASTS paper illustrated the extent of the brain drain in the mathematical sciences. No discipline can afford this kind of haemorrhaging and remain vibrant, creative and innovative. The national loss cannot be counted in simple dollar terms as such expertise and talent is irreplaceable. Neither can the loss of morale among those who have chosen to remain or are in despair about a discipline area they saw grow in international reputation and which is now seen as having little future. In 1996, the Australian Academy of Science launched the discipline review titled Mathematical sciences: Adding to Australia. The discipline was found to have a rather fragile base but was basically sound. Much can happen in a few years as the data in the FASTS’ report illustrates.
  2. The enterprise bargaining approach to salary negotiations has led universities to 'downsize' often in critical areas like technical support, workshops, and general staff, to meet the basic requirements of academic salary costs. Universities will continue to lose staff to ensure reasonable salary levels, or will risk the loss of the best staff. Universities need not only to provide adequate financial rewards but also to keep at the leading edge of electronic and technological change, investing in equipment and machinery and other essential infrastructure if talented staff is to be attracted and retained.

the capacity of public universities to contribute to economic growth:

in communities and regions

  1. It is well documented the vital role universities play in the economic and cultural life of regional Australia and undoubtedly this issue will be addressed by the regional universities.

as an export industry, and

  1. Universities now attract about $1.7 billion in under-graduate fees per year. This is a plus. However, fees at graduate student level have cut the participation of overseas students since 1988 and this failure of Australia to place its PhD graduates strategically in Asia may be a loss in the long term of the good effects of the Colombo plan. Internationally, it is a different market from undergraduate and graduate coursework study, with world class universities providing inducements for the best graduate research students. In Australia, the situation is different. For example, there are anomalies with the Fringe Benefit Tax and visa requirements which can result in graduate students being severely penalised should their study not be completed in three and a half years.

through research and development, both via the immediate economic contribution of universities and through sustained national research capacity in the longer term

  1. A report for the Business Higher Education Round Table has estimated the annual value of the economic impact of universities. It concluded that not only is there $10.6 billion of expenditure by universities and their students in the community, but that each year’s graduates add about $9.2 billion in additional human capital to Australia and that the university research contributes a further $2.2 billion to industry from its spill-over impact. Government funding of research and development in universities is, of course, especially productive since the results are made openly available by contrast to privately funded research and development whose spill over is limited by the owners’ wish to make first use of the new knowledge [11].
  2. Other studies show the positive taxation contribution of universities through their activities. These offset about one half of Government investment in universities, especially State Government investment [12].
  3. The tertiary education system has a significant role to play in positioning Australia to capitalise on its strengths in areas such as biotechnology. This training should extend from providing the academic skills required to carry out biotechnology research, to facilitating the transition of talented investigators to becoming entrepreneurs equipped to make sound commercial decisions. There is growing support for business degrees to contain a compulsory component of science and technology so that future business managers and investors have an understanding of the unique issues involved in the exploitation of technology. This will require more resources for universities and collaboration between science and business faculties [13].

the regulation of the higher education sector in the global environment, including:

accreditation regimes and quality assurance

  1. The Australian Quality Assurance Framework (AQAF) exists as a result of the 1999 policy statement Knowledge and Innovation. This Framework could provide one method to incorporate a thorough RAE component in the funding provisions to ensure quality in research and teaching. The AQAF could make recommendations to a Higher Education Funding Council. The Framework should be structured and resourced in such a way as to rank international quality in teaching and research.
  2. The same process can be used for newly founded universities which concentrate on research, for research in some disciplines, or in teaching.

external mechanisms to undertake an ongoing review of the capacity of the sector to meet Australia’s education, training, research, social and economic needs

  1. As mentioned earlier, the Academy recommends strongly the introduction of an external Research Assessment Exercise to provide a system for rating research quality throughout the unified national system. The Academy sees the need for universities to have an external standard to measure their performance in both teaching and research.

university governance reporting requirements, structures and practices

  1. The greatest regulation of all is price regulation for a principal product – undergraduate Australian students.

the nature and sufficiency of independent advice to government on higher education matters, particularly having regard to the abolition of the National Board of Employment, Education and Training

  1. The Academy believes that it is in the national interest that universities be funded at arms length from government. The synergy of the relationship that could be achieved between a Higher Education Funding Council and the existing research councils would allow a pluralism of funding. This would encourage innovation and diversity.

Notes

  • Alan Greenspan, Economy and change: investing in an educated future, www.studyoverseas.com/business/greenspna.htm
  • Professor Malcolm Gilles, President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities
  • Australian Academy of Science, Submission to the Chief Scientist’s review of the Australian, science, technology and engineering base, November, 1999
  • Professor John White, The meaning of diversity, February, 1998
  • Australian Academy of Science, A research assessment proposal, November, 2000
  • B Jongbloed, Performance-based funding in higher education: an international survey, Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, Monash, Working Paper XX, March, 2001.
  • Professor E Weigold, Chair, National Committee for Physics, Australian Academy of Science, 1999
  • Jan Thomas, Mathematical sciences in Australia: looking for a future, Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, Occasional paper series, October, 2000
  • Australia’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Research Base, Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, 30 November, 2000
  • Australian Academy of Science, International networks and the competitiveness of Australia’s Science and Technology, February, 1999
  • Australian Academy of Science, Submission to the Chief Scientist’s review of the Australian, science, technology and engineering base, November, 1999
  • H Cabula, P Kenyon, P Koshy, Of dollars and cents: valuing the economic contribution of universities to the Australian economy, BHERT, August, 2000
  • P Gallagher, B Tran-Nam, Australian universities as tax contributors, Australian Taxation Studies Program UNSW, March, 1999

© 2017 Australian Academy of Science

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