Good morning,


For organisations that cop a lot of stick for making staff do stuff and then not remunerating them properly, it’s ironic that Australian universities incur very similar treatment.


They’re required to conduct research, as a condition of their regulated existence. Under changes introduced in 2021, they have to conduct half of that research to a pretty high standard. Yet under changes implemented at roughly the same time, funding for their research (a bit of fat in their teaching grants) was whisked away.


True, universities still attract $2 billion or so in research block grants. But roughly three-quarters of this money is competitively allocated, with each university’s share determined by its success in winning grants from the ARC, the NHMRC, industry funders and so on. It’s not something they can bank on, so to speak.


In other words, public institutions are being required to do something they’re not necessarily being funded to do.


When I raise this, people don’t seem very animated. Unis should stop putting their hands out for more dosh, I’m told. They should blow less money on consultants. That’s probably true, but it’s also beside the point. I’m talking about an administrative principle. If a public institution is required to do something, it should be resourced to do it, right? If you want the local police to start doing fire inspections, you cover their costs. You don’t make them arm-wrestle the fire brigade for the extra moolah. If authorities suddenly want the bus service to start running an extra route, the school to teach Swahili, the hospital to provide free foot massages, they should bloody well pay for it.


This is a peculiarity of Australia’s funding system that wasn’t directly addressed in the Universities Accord’s interim report. Instead, as you might expect from a panel that’s brimming with ideas, it has a bet either way. On one hand, it suggests that the provider category standards should be relaxed to allow universities to explore their identities as “teaching-intensive” or even “education for the professions-focused” entities. On the other, it suggests separate funding for “base research capacity”, maybe through some new-look block grant.


How will all this wash out? God knows. And maybe we’ll know, a little after December.

– John Ross, Asia-Pacific editor


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