A number of university tsars and academics have looked down their noses this past week at politicians who have dared to express the view that the community and its representatives should have a say in what research is publicly funded in Australia.
The defensive reaction by the universities was entirely predictable, and, entirely predictably, missed the point. I only hope that the incoming Minister for Higher Education does not also miss the point.
Politicians might or might not be right to draw attention to the seeming buffoonery of esoteric research topics. No doubt some of them, perhaps many of them, are pretty wacky, or merely speak to the ideological peccadillos of the researcher. And we all know that the way to get ARC funding over the last few years has been to add the three magic words to every grant application – "and climate change". Well, let me tell you, that game is now over.
Yet there will always be a defence of every piece of research ever undertaken, and, moreover, of the right of the academy to determine what research is done, free from political interference. There always will be. Many would agree that governments should not be in the business of picking research winners. But if this is the case, and far more importantly, they should not be setting "national research goals" at all, nor should they be funding research twice over. For this is what they currently do, through salaries then through grants, at great and largely unseen cost to the taxpayer. This is the real problem with the current system of funding university research. It is a scam, and, moreover, it is harmful to the soul of the academy.
There is a simple solution. Abolish the whole university research funding edifice, commencing with the Australian Research Council. Remember that twenty years or so ago, this was a mere "committee". It worked much better then. Now, it is a monster totally out of control. Then let's move on to all the unnecessary compliance and so-called "quality" bureaucracies in Canberra and in the universities. Then we can downsize Canberra's largely useless Department of Education. Then fund university research through block grants based on some agreed criterion like size of the institution, perhaps with a weighting for regionality, the youth of the institution or some other mitigating circumstance. Even save the taxpayer a couple of billion dollars. But no, you say, this is cutting education funding and therefore hastening the end of the world as we know it. We can't ever do that. Well, the university world as we know it is, in my humble opinion, not worth defending.
I thought, when I rejoined the university system in 2007 after a lengthy absence, that research was what academics just did. They got paid their salaries to do research. I soon found out that what was really required of us now was to be, in effect, fund raisers for the corporate university. And that our value to the university was now measured in external competitive research dollars won, not on the excellence of our research. This is the new way to get on, indeed, the only way to keep your job.
The ARC is a self-perpetuating club, with those on the inside (the members of the club) granted prestige, career preferment, opportunities to ditch teaching, pathways to promotion, really cool web pages with endless reference to how many grants they have won, and so on. Those on the outside, those poor buggers who "only" get category two and three grants, those who can't claim the magic words "track record", those outside the sandstone universities, those not publishing in the strategically "correct" FoRs, and especially those caught up in the fevered desires of non Go8 university chieftains to climb the league table of research, the holy grail of Australian university life.
A member of the college of ARC experts once told me, quite arrogantly I thought, in response to what I (naturally) believed was a great and important research idea of mine, that (yawn) they get "hundreds" of great ideas, but without a track record, don't even bother. Increasingly, of course, universities themselves are creating gatekeeper internal bureaucracies to ensure only grant applications with a high chance of success leave the building.
This creates are two tiered system, saps the energy of good people, and rewards researchers and institutions that are good at gaming the system. It also, and very importantly, devalues scholarship, something that fewer and fewer universities now understand, let alone reward. In my own field of regional development, I have always found it quite weird how universities value "research", the exploration of the new, over "scholarship", the recognition that there is much value in synthesising what we already know and thinking innovatively about how we use better what we already know.
In any case, why should the taxpayer pay twice for researchers to do research? I can't think of a good reason, especially as the current system creates perverse incentives and rewards, fundamentally stunts scholarship and favours gamers. The mind boggling bureaucratic architecture created over the last decade is simply eating up the universities and those who dwell within them, creating a gazillion inefficiencies with which the academic is all too familiar. Self-interested academics with an eye on that magic next contract will simply chase competitive grants rather than do the research (for nothing) that they think is interesting and important. If their own field and interests coincide with grant seeking opportunities, that is no more than a happy coincidence. If they don't, then bad luck.
I am simply astonished that so many academics simply swallow this system and all that it entails whole, and that more of us don't make more noise about it.
The ARC system, especially when combined with the absurd burdens of utterly meaningless compliance demanded by ersatz "quality" regulators like TEQSA and ERA who demand "world class" research, has managed to drain most of the joy out of being an academic without any real gain to the taxpayer. Does anyone think that because Joanne Bloggs publishes in a journal with a 2.46576 impact score that the taxpayer will sleep more easily at night? Give me a break! Universities survived for about 800 years without this nonsense. Let us get rid of it. The very word "quality" in relation to research should be banned.
Here are the core benefits of abolishing the ARC, TEQSA, ERA and most of the Department of Education in Canberra:
· It will save the taxpayer a load of wasted dollars.
· It will end tedious debates between academics and politicians about what is and is not useful research.
· It will allow researchers to simply get on and research the things they and their colleagues think are important.
· There will be no more costly compliance for universities. This wastes time and resources and creates positions in universities that re not needed and simply did not exist fifteen years ago. Spend taxpayer dollars on academic salaries instead.
· There will be no more "national" research priorities for universities to bow before. Governments telling university researchers what to research is essentially fascist and, for those who understand how innovation works, patently absurd. Universities have outsourced to governments and markets decisions about what they specialise in. It is time they took back this most basic of responsibilities of the academy.
· It will engineer a return to the primary goals of the university – teaching and scholarship.
The good thing about this proposal is that it will save the taxpayers heaps of money, by allowing a massive downsizing of the largely unnecessary Department of Education in Canberra and by saving all that competitive grant money that is now so wastefully sought.
Just as importantly, this is a proposal that will be simply loved by working academics.
It will allow the dismemberment of the whole ghastly edifice of research "management" constructed so elaborately by grant-troughing university administrations these past years. It will kill off all the internal markets created by senior administrators to sort out the research sheep from the goats. It will allow more university resources to go towards actual research, or even, gasp, scholarship (the word you almost never hear on campus any more). It will substantially reduce the need for university administrative staff. It will reduce marketing budgets. It will get scholars doing more old fashioned things – talking to one another in tea rooms, putting on seminars and conferences, engaging with their communities, indeed teaching their communities. It will free up academic time. It will get the great scholars back to the classrooms. It will also increase the smiles on campus.
The system of funding university research in Australia is flawed, and requires fundamental rethinking. The arrival of a new government is as good a time as any to have the discussion about how this should proceed. Nothing short of a power-hosing of the grotty stables is required.
Universities have become very sad and stressful places, and places that are needlessly costly to the taxpayer. And I think I know why, and what can be done about it by an innovative, laterally thinking incoming government with loads of political capital.