In summary

Opinion for the Australian Financial Review by Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research, Professor Karen Hapgood

The “hub and spoke” research model proposed by Australia’s biggest universities ignores how mid-sized institutions have had a profound influence on advancing knowledge globally.

Many Australians wouldn’t have heard of the Australian Universities Accord, but they will feel the impact of it. The government initiative is an opportunity to drive once-in-a-generation reform in the tertiary sector to reshape the university experience, with flow-on effects felt throughout the knowledge economy.

But while the accord’s recently published interim report has a number of constructive initial ideas, including proposed “system shifts” to boost equity and fairness, it’s almost silent on research and innovation.

As Deputy-Vice Chancellor Research at Swinburne University of Technology, I find that silence alarming.

Australia’s path to a thriving future lies in pioneering research, particularly when it’s transformed into real-world solutions through hands-on application and savvy commercial endeavours. Breakthroughs in fields such as medicine, manufacturing, information technology and scientific exploration aren’t just milestones: they power our social evolution.

Swinburne has pioneered delivering the world’s fastest internet speeds

Consider the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence, OzGrav, based at Swinburne, which has made enormous strides in understanding the emerging science of gravitational waves. The specialised expertise in extremely fast data processing of faint and transient signals led to a Swinburne spin-out company, Fourier Space, which is now applying their expertise in real-time data transfer and processing to satellite communications.

At Swinburne, we have pioneered delivering the world’s fastest internet speeds and are helping to ensure that people retain their memory as they age. If we want Australian research of this calibre to continue to stand tall on the global stage – while delivering tangible economic benefits – it’s essential that we fully fund research in areas of strategic priorities and national importance.

Yet universities big and small are aligned on one thing: the current approach for research funding is unsustainable. The accord’s interim report also points this out as a key issue facing the sector. University after university has used the accord’s consultation process to call for sector-wide reform with comprehensive recommendations on the table.

The Go8 submission calls this a “radical idea” – it’s academic elitism. It would entrench historical privilege of the oldest institution

Swinburne has a firm conviction that the best way to make the most of our excellent research capabilities is to foster a diverse and collaborative sector that encompasses universities of all sizes and specialities. This will yield the maximum benefit to the community and economy.

It’s for this reason that I want to draw attention to the accord submission by the Group of Eight – some of Australia’s wealthiest universities – and why the wholesale adoption of their recommendations would be detrimental to the future of the sector.

The Go8 submission proposes that, given that only eight universities report over 45 per cent of total expenditure on research, these should become federal research-intensive institutions with dedicated strategic funding. Under this proposed formal differentiation, the other universities would act as “spokes” connected to a Go8 “hub”, only able to apply for research grants if there was a connection to a Go8 institution.

I was startled when I read this submission. This is not the pathway to a fairer, more reasoned model.

This system would create a dangerous two-tiered system, with other universities playing second fiddle, only being allowed to apply for research grants if they buddy up with a Go8 university. No institution should be prevented from working in partnership – collaboration is vital to our continued success – but this should not be mandated.

The Go8 submission calls this a “radical idea”. It’s not radical, it’s academic elitism. It would entrench historical privilege of the oldest institutions and ensure that the Go8 research culture became the dominant and only university research culture in Australia. It ignores the different histories, trajectories and community needs of a range of other universities, not only in the regions but within most capital cities.

Imagine if the National Health and Medical Research Council only extended research grants to their most historically successful group – men – and other grant recipients, such as women or people of colour, could only apply if linked to a man’s application due to legacy funding. It simply wouldn’t happen.

The Go8 “hubs and spokes” idea is also based on a fundamental assumption that the current funding model of big is better should remain.

Critical mass is important, but the relevant scale for critical mass is defined by having an international impact on the field and industry, not by full-time equivalent count (FTE).

There are a number of mid-sized universities internationally and these institutions have had a profound influence on advancing research globally. While Swinburne might not match the sheer size of some Australian universities, we have strategically pinpointed areas – such as medical technology, aerospace and innovative planet – where we can amplify our impact.

No one looks at mid-sized universities internationally and concludes that they are too small to have critical mass, handing over all research funding to much larger institutions. That would be a travesty to research across the globe and to industry innovation. It would be equally disastrous if this model was implemented in Australia.

Swinburne champions a vision for a more diversified tertiary landscape, supporting not only specialisation by activity but also in key areas such as STEM, technology, and the humanities. We need to avoid group-think when determining which research ventures garner support.

Instead, it’s about asking what we, as a community, truly value. Rather than being satisfied with the status quo, or entrenching a flawed system driven by inertia, we must use this accord’s process to move towards a model that advances the sector and, in the process, advances society.

This article was orignally published on the Australian Financial Review

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