Borrow UK strategy to mind the research gap, Canberra urged


While a brains trust of Australian vice-chancellors is considering how to fund research long-term, a university group says the biggest challenge is more immediate

July 26, 2020

John Ross

Australian research needs a temporary lifeline to prevent a short-term revenue squeeze permanently incapacitating the sector, according to the Innovative Research Universities (IRU) group.

The IRU wants Canberra to emulate the UK in bankrolling research groups facing immediate loss of funding because of Covid-19.

Executive director Conor King said that a collapse of Australia’s research capacity this year would be difficult to reverse in the future, even if adequate funding materialised, because key researchers may have vanished in the meantime.

Mr King said that he was particularly worried about up-and-coming researchers trying to establish careers at the same time as they built families, who might be tempted into fields offering more security. He said that the crisis risked permanently deterring people destined for “research greatness”, who just happened to be working on projects rendered insolvent.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to put research funding on a more secure footing. A May study concluded that the equivalent of 21,000 full-time university staff risked losing their jobs before the end of the year, including at least 7,000 researchers.

The Group of Eight says that more than 4,400 staff at its member institutions are on research contracts that will expire by early next year, with little sign that universities will be able to fund their renewal.

Australian universities’ research capacity is further jeopardised by education minister Dan Tehan’s funding reform proposals, which could erase the profits universities make from domestic teaching grants – surplus money thought to cross-subsidise research by about A$1.3 billion (£720 million) a year.

The government has convened a working group of vice-chancellors to explore alternative models of university research funding. “One of the key challenges in a post-Covid economy will be to provide a sustainable pipeline of funding for research,” Mr Tehan said. “I want to work with the sector to achieve this.”

But Mr King said that those deliberations could take months. “The more immediate concern is keeping research and researchers going now.

“We need to flatten the curve of university revenue reduction across 2020 and 2021. The IRU is calling on the government to make short-term funding available to plug the gap while a longer-term solution is worked out.”

He cited the UK’s move to give research-active institutions access to long-term, low-interest loans covering up to 80 per cent of international education revenue losses because of the pandemic. Britain has also earmarked £280 million of grant funding to support salary and research costs associated with projects delayed by the outbreak.

Mr King said that Australian assistance provided as loans would force research groups to formulate plans to repay it. He said funds could be tied to projects that had demonstrably been brought to a standstill by the pandemic.

“Universities might have to put up a case and there would be some sort of assessment,” he said. “There would be ways to structure a short-term programme that isn’t just writing each university a cheque, which I can see the government may not be very inclined to do.”

He said that most universities expected to be smaller operations once the pandemic was over. “The challenge is not to keep all the jobs, while that obviously would be desirable. It’s what is the realistic number of researchers we want in 2022, and how do we not drop below that figure unnecessarily?”