Top Australian universities call for end to "every child gets a prize" approach and funding of mediocre research
Australia will not develop the innovative economy envisaged by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull unless it stops rewarding mediocrity and ditches a culture of "every child gets a prize", the nation's most prestigious universities argue.
The Group of Eight universities – including the University of Sydney and University of Melbourne – is urging the federal government to fix the country's "broken" research funding system by targeting taxpayer funds at research judged to be of high quality.
This includes a contentious push for $680 million in annual funding for PhD and master's research to be restricted to institutions rated at or above world standard in their chosen fields.
The change would hit suburban and regional universities the hardest, leading to warnings it would entrench the privilege of elite institutions.
Go8 chief executive Vicki Thomson said: "Australia's research funding system is broken: it is over-complicated and rewards research that is below world standard.
"We are using scarce taxpayer dollars on research that is frankly mediocre.
"Instead of an egalitarian, 'every child gets a prize' approach we should be funding excellence.
"You wouldn't fund a mediocre sportsperson in the hope they can go on to win a gold medal. The Australian Institute of Sport takes athletes and invests in them because they believe they can be excellent. That's the approach we should take to research."
The Turnbull government has a slew of reviews under way including into: research funding and policy; research training; research infrastructure; and boosting the commercial returns of research.
Ms Thomson said: "It is fantastic to see the Prime Minister talk about innovation, and the key to a more innovative economy is university research and training."
Ms Thomson said 98 per cent of research at the Go8 universities is judged world standard or above, according to the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) rankings. By contrast, 38 per cent of research at non-Go8 universities is judged as below world standard.
The Go8 approach would see the University of Western Sydney and University of Newcastle lose funding for PhD research in the physical sciences, Macquarie University and La Trobe University for mathematics and Charles Sturt University for history.
Universities judged as excellent in their research fields – such as James Cook University for tropical science or the University of Tasmania for oceanography – would continue to receive funding.
Australian National University vice-chancellor Ian Young said in a speech earlier this month: "My concern is that we don't target our research investment in areas of demonstrable excellence and hence our average research performance trails our national peers.
"One has to ask if Australia's more egalitarian approaches represent good use of scarce research funding and whether it yields the country the best outcomes."
Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor Greg Craven said he supported universities focusing on their research strengths, but accused the Go8 of self-interest.
"The argument from the Group of Eight on research is essentially: let's give rich universities all the money," he said.
"That ignores the fact that some of these universities have been around for 150 years and have had a big head start with support from the taxpayer."
Regional Universities Network chairwoman Jan Thomas said the group opposed using "narrow" research scores to allocate funding. The scores were retrospective, didn't adequately recognise engagement with industry and ignored the strategic importance of research in regional Australia, she said.