The Future of Science in Australian Universities

ACDS AGM and Conference 25-26 October 2021 – Speaker Summaries

Aidan Byrne

Professor Aidan Byrne, Provost, University of Queensland

Aidan commenced his presentation by comparing some of the predictions and challenges articulated during his presentation to the AGM in 2018 with the HE landscape today. Challenges identified in 2018 included our exposure to volatility in the International student market; big-data publishing; Federal Government disengagement; and possible models for the organisation  of our Universities in 2030. In his 2018 presentation, he also explored the various budget models that Universities were using to support T&L and Research, emphasising the importance of International-Student income in funding our research. Finally, he addressed some of the challenges posed by Open Access publication models and predicted in 2018 that we would not easily reach an Open Access solution. Moving forward to 2021, we know that the Chief Scientist is currently  exploring Open Access publication models, although there is little understanding in Government about what this might mean. There is also a commentary from Government regarding the need to protect our IP and obtain a better commercial return. This intersects, in “interesting” ways, with the Open Access publication agenda, and from Aidan’s perspective, the Government does not yet have a consistent narrative regarding this multidimensional issue.

Moving ahead to 2021, the current challenges that Aidan identified for our sector are different:

  • COVID-19: it is difficult to under-estimate the extent to which HE, in particular, has been impacted by the pandemic. It has amplified the impact of all issues identified below.
  • Job Ready Graduates (JRG): although our perspective is that the Government introduced JRG without fully understanding its potential impacts, Aidan suggested that perhaps the underlying intention all along was to engineer profound changes by forcing Universities to explore different operating models. For example, the CGS funding model is now completely aligned with the cost of teaching (or the Government’s flawed understanding of those costs), without the flexibility of using any of the CGS funds to support research. Prior to this, we supported our dual functions of teaching and research through a combination of competitive grants-based income, international student income and the CGS base funding, with the latter underpinned by a demand-driven system. The demand-driven system was deemed unsustainable by the current Government and abandoned in 2017. Further, they have adjusted the balance of “who pays for what”, leading to the requirement for students to contribute a larger fraction of the cost of their studies. More importantly, for science disciplines, JRG has led to a significant decrease in the funding per EFTSL.
  • One-off injection of $1B to support research: To offset the loss of funds due to the changes in the CGS model, the Government provided a one-off allocation of $1B in 2021 to support research. Much of this funding will support research in the sciences and engineering. As a result, a rough analysis across the forward estimates suggests that the net funding to the sector in 2021 has not diminished. However, the additional funds available to the Government as a result of JRG have yet to be returned to the sector via a new (sustainable) research funding model. Until this happens, the HE sector will continue to be adversely impacted by JRG.
  • Shift in funding balance between disciplines: The challenge for Universities is to identify the best mix of disciplines that optimises their operating margin into the future. The maximum income is set by the JRG funding model. However, the operating costs (particularly the overall cost of delivering  courses) are determined by the disciplines that a University chooses to deliver. Hence there is an opportunity to optimise the margin by modifying the discipline mix offered to students. Taking UQ as an example, if you begin with the initial load profile that was funded in 2021 and pursue such an optimisation model to its logical conclusion, it becomes less and less attractive for Universities to support science and engineering. The Government is probably unaware of the possibility of such perverse outcomes arising from the funding decisions implicit in the JRG. As an example, even now it makes no economic sense for Universities to offer disciplines such as Agriculture, but it is clearly in the national interest for us to do so.
  • Exposure to foreign student markets: the loss of International student load has posed significant financial challenges across the sector in 2020 and 2021, as is well known, with different Universities being impacted in different ways. In some cases, Universities managed this process by offering remote study options, which enabled students to continue their studies from their home countries. The situation with onshore international enrolments in 2022 is unknown, given the different re-entry requirements imposed by the different states. This situation is further complicated by the complex geopolitical landscape, which might further delay the return of students from China, our largest International-student market.
  • Staffing profiles: an obvious question for us to ask, as University leaders, is “have we got the optimum staff mix within our Institutions”? This is particularly important as we consider how best to support and maximise research intensity (and in which areas), together with face-to-face teaching vs hybrid delivery models vs laboratory-based teaching vs content-on-demand.
  • What will teaching look like in the future: the pandemic has forced us to explore our options for teaching delivery as we adapt to a completely different operating environment. The defining characteristic of the education experience in science is laboratory/field-based education. How we maintain this experience in the future will be one of the difficult challenges that science educators will be forced to confront.
  • What will University campuses look like in the future: At present, our (domestic) students often choose to avoid coming onto campus, even in States such as Queensland, where our Universities are not in lock-down. This poses another challenge – how do we energise the curriculum (particularly in laboratory/field-work-based teaching) to bring students back onto campus?

Questions from the Floor

  • Question: How should the ARC adapt to support the full cost of research in a post-JRG world?

Response: One approach would be for the Government to continue injecting $1B into the funding envelope each year, using the savings that they have accrued from JRG (no net cost to Government). They also have additional funds available from the R&D tax concession; this, together with the $1B injections could significantly offset the indirect costs of research.

  • Question: Hybrid teaching approaches, such as those that we have been forced to implement when responding to COVID-19, are more expensive to deliver than traditional face-to-face delivery. Have these additional costs been considered, given the decrease in discretionary funds available to us?

Response: No, these have not been considered by Aidan’s modelling or by the JRG model. We need to identify new efficiencies in our approaches to T&L, or risk becoming non-viable. Given the need to carefully manage our discretionary funding, this might require us to more carefully identify which research areas we will support and which people we will support to undertake research, so that resources can be made available to support our more expensive hybrid teaching models. These are difficult and impactful decisions.