Submission—West Committee Review of Higher Education Financing and Policy

On 1 May 1997, the Academy made the following submission to the West Committee Review of Higher Education Financing and Policy.


Summary

  • Scholarship and research are vital components of the university system and important contributors to economic growth, quality of life and environmental sustainability. The current level of contribution by government to university research costs is fully justified.
  • There should be considerable diversity in the higher education system. In the current fiscal climate, not all universities can be adequately funded for research across all disciplines. It should be recognised, however, that an individual academic can be a good, inspiring teacher without being actively involved in research.
  • The Australian Academy of Science strongly supports the system of peer assessment of researchers and research projects. A large fraction of infrastructure funding for research in universities should be tied to competitive grants. Opportunities should be available for academics in units not funded for research to pursue collaborative research in other institutions.
  • The international dimension of university research, including participation of Australian academics in international networks, overseas postdoctoral experience and collaborative research, is very important to the health and impact of Australian research.
  • Differential HECS fees may act as a disincentive for students to select courses in science and engineering and have a detrimental impact on the supply of qualifed teachers in science and mathematics. The situation should be monitored and adjustments made if required in the national interest.

This submission from the Australian Academy of Science 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 Academy recognises, however, that there must be diversity in the higher education system.

The level of participation in higher education, with more than 40% of school leavers enrolling in higher education institutions, and the removal of the binary divide, has blurred the distinction between the pre-1987 universities and the former colleges of advanced education, which in the main offered vocational courses and were not involved in research to any significant extent.

The almost doubling in the number of universities and the large increase in student numbers has strained the budget for higher education. It is clear that the funding of all institutions in the unified national system for internationally-competitive research across all disciplines is not affordable in the current fiscal climate. It is simply not possible without greatly increased funding for all the universities to attain international distinction in research and scholarship across a range of disciplines.

There has been discussion on moving to a system of higher education where liberal arts is a precursor to undertaking a course like science or engineering. The Academy would not support such a move, but favours sufficient diversity in the university system to meet the diverse needs of higher education.

Sources of finance for higher education

There is now bipartisan support for a division of funding responsibility for university undergraduate teaching between the Government, because of the economic and social benefits of higher education, and students, as the beneficiaries of a university education. At present, the division is approximately 2:1. The Academy would be concerned if the government contribution were reduced any further. The Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) has considerable advantages over up-front fees for equity in higher education, but the Academy is concerned that the recent introduction of differential HECS fees may act as a further disincentive for students to select science and engineering courses. This aspect needs to be kept under examination and adjustments made if required in the national interest. The Academy considers that it is crucial for the future international competitiveness of Australia that sufficient numbers of our best students are attracted into science and engineering courses.

The quality of teachers in science and mathematics in the secondary system is a crucially important determinant of student abilities and attitudes on entry to higher education. A properly qualified teacher at secondary level should have a major in a relevant discipline. The Academy is concerned that higher HECS fees for science and mathematics will have a detrimental effect on the supply of properly qualified teachers to the secondary school system. Educational authorities should consider meeting the additional HECS charges for intending science and mathematics teachers.

The Academy considers that the issue of student vouchers should be carefully examined by the review. It would be difficult to move to a full voucher system, because of the potential mismatch between student demand and existing infrastructure, and the potential for short term disruption in the university system. But a partial voucher system where some of the government funding to universities for undergraduate training is funded through students by way of vouchers or scholarships would lead to some deregulation of higher education and a market where student choice would be a significant factor on the allocation of funded places in higher education institutions.

It is important that all institutions in the university system attain and maintain minimum standards and that suitable accreditation processes are in place. These would also be important to maintain Australia's reputation in the international market place for high-quality education.

Role of research in higher education

The role of universities is

  • 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 as well as to social and economic development and management of the environment.

The research which produces the knowledge base for innovation includes fundamental research or pure basic research, strategic basic research and technological or applied research.

Australian universities conduct research of all types, but pure basic research and strategic basic research predominate. The universities conduct most of the pure basic research in Australia.

The objectives of pure basic and strategic basic research of high international standard are to provide

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

Published Australian research accounts for about 2% of the world's total. Effective international links are essential to provide access to the leading edge of world research and technology. Conducting high quality, internationally-recognised research in Australia provides the entry ticket into the world community of researchers. A good infrastructure for research, which includes laboratory space, up-to-date equipment, adequate library and computer facilities and a critical mass of researchers, is essential for the performance of internationally competitive research. A report by the National Board of Employment, Education and Training (NBEET) concludes that research infrastructure in all its dimensions is coming under pressure due to expanding research activity in the universities.

The Australian Academy of Science strongly supports the system of peer assessment of researchers and research projects and believes that the most gifted and able people should have adequate resources to enable them to perform research that is of high quality and significant in the international context. It is important that research resources also are provided for gifted newly-appointed junior academic staff.

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 relative to research performance, which includes the impact of research as well as output. This raises the question of whether infrastructure for research should be funded by way of a specific block grant to the institution, which nevertheless would vary from university to university, or as a component of competitive grants. 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.

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. Analyses of bibliometric evidence related to research performance indicate the high quality of Australia's research, but there is evidence of a declining share of world citations in a large number of fields of Australian research since the mid-to late- 1980s. A recent study by the Australian Academy of Science examined reasons for the decline. The likeliest cause, although not the only factor, was an attenuation of the international networks connecting Australia's researchers with leading colleagues overseas. The Academy's report indicated the importance of overseas postdoctoral experience in establishing and maintaining international links.

Post-graduate training

The fraction 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 the best researchers have an appropriate share of good PhD students.

Diversity in Higher Education

We have already indicated why it is not affordable for all 37 universities in Australia to attain international distinction in research across all disciplines. Research grants and infrastructure support should go to the most gifted individuals and be related to output. Centres of excellence, such as ARC Special Research Centres or the groups supported by NH&MRC Program Grants, bring together a diversity of skills and a sufficient number of researchers to tackle difficult research topics in an internationally-competitive way, and with state-of-the-art equipment. Such centres are built around outstanding individuals and they attract excellent PhD students and postdoctoral fellows as well as senior researchers from overseas. Special research centres with a wider brief to foster research in a whole discipline could also play a valuable role, especially in disciplines that are not equipment-dependent. However, the maintenance of a plurality of good research by means of grants to individual researchers is also necessary, to ensure a healthy diversity of the research efforts of the nation. It is essential to have a sufficient diversity of research from the standpoint of PhD training to meet the nation's present and future needs for trained personnel.

The Academy accepts that in a more diversified system active involvement in research for all academics may be an unreachable ideal, especially in high cost areas of research. At the least, all university academics should be seriously engaged in scholarship. Opportunities should be made available for academics in units which are not funded for research to pursue collaborative research elsewhere. National research centres could provide an opportunity for this in some disciplines. We accept, however, that an individual academic can be a good, inspiring teacher without being actively involved in research.

There is debate on the purpose of higher education and the place of vocational courses in universities. Universities are an important element in the production of an appropriately skilled workforce. Employers see this function as the prime responsibility of universities. But industry demand varies from the need for new staff who have received adequate training in research project planning and execution and are capable of creative thinking and initiative, to those who have a basic knowledge of their subject and are capable of the intelligent use of up-to-date techniques. Industry associations should be more active in contributing to the design of university courses. The Academy does not argue that vocational courses should not be offered in universities, but such courses should have a strong foundation in rigorous academic disciplines. Otherwise, vocational training should be the responsibility of TAFE or other advanced colleges carrying out non-academic career training.

Certain basic science disciplines such as physics are in decline. Many physics departments are under threat of closure or amalgamation due to static or declining enrolments and the high cost of maintaining up-to-date equipment. Obviously, there is not the demand to justify a fully-fledged physics department with the appropriate academic and research expertise in the essential sub-disciplines of physics in each of the 37 universities of the unified national system. The education of physicists needs rationalisation to ensure that the nation maintains a minimum number of high-quality physics departments, both in the capital cities and in major regions. Collaboration between physics departments in the offering of undergraduate majors should be encouraged. Opportunities should be made available for academics teaching physics in universities lacking adequate research facilities to do collaborative research with colleagues in better equipped departments. Similar arguments apply to earth science departments.

For very expensive equipment, it is necessary to establish national facilities and some priority should be given to the allocation of funds for the purchase and operation of equipment in national facilities. Funds should also be provided so that researchers in Australian institutions can gain access to very expensive facilities in other countries.

How should diversity across universities be achieved?

The Academy believes that student 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 will also be important. National needs may require central direction in some circumstances, but, on the whole, individual universities must be in charge of their planning and operations. Micromanagement from a central bureaucracy must be avoided.

The Academy believes there is scope for greater flexibility 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.

© 2017 Australian Academy of Science

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