Grattan Institute advocates cutting university research funding

Andrew Norton of the Grattan Institute has received quite a bit of attention for a piece arguing that universities don’t need additional funding because money intended to fund teaching is going to support research instead. Norton suggests that the funding going to research is around $2 billion a year

University research matters to Australia, but the evidence that it improves teaching is less clear. Direct spending on teaching, by contrast, is far more likely to ensure that universities offer the high-quality courses students want.

The obvious question is, if university research is important to Australia, won’t cutting $2 billion (or some substantial component of it) from research funding harm our national interest. As the quote above shows, Norton merely asserts that redirecting funding from research to teaching will benefit teaching.

The core of Norton’s piece is a misuse of accounting categories. The implicit claim that, since university funding is allocated on a per-student basis, it must be intended entirely for teaching. The further implicit assumption is that the only research that should be undertaken is that explicitly funded through bodies like the Australian Research Council.

But this has historically never been the case. In Australia, and (as far as I know) in every other country, university academics are expected to undertake research as part of their duties, whether or not they have grant funding. The standard proportion, which hasn’t changed in my 30+ year involvement in the system is 80 per cent teaching (and associated service), 20 per cent research, which appears to be exactly the proportion cited by Norton.

It’s true that more transparency in the allocation of resources between teaching and research would be a good thing, if it were feasible. But as the travails of exercises like the Excellence for Research in Australia process have found, this is easier said than done.

Finally, lets come back to Norton’s rejection of the centuries-old scholar-teacher model in favor of a teaching-only approach. His defence of this position “the evidence that it improves teaching is less clear” is not exactly robust.

Against this we can observe that worldwide, there are in fact plenty of examples of both teaching-only and research-intensive institutions. Nearly all are nominally funded on a per-student basis, whether through fees, government subsidies or both. So, what does the market test, which Norton ought to favor tell us. The answer is that students are beating down the doors of the research-intensive unis. Teaching-only schools are the second choice for nearly everyone[1]

fn1. The one exception, unique to the US, is a set of tiny, incredibly expensive, liberal arts colleges, typically attended by children of the upper classes who don’t need to worry too much about making their way in the world. As might be expected, Uni of Adelaide VC Warren Bebbington, who is under the impression that these are representative of non-research US unis, is quoted supporting Norton.

44 thoughts on “Grattan Institute advocates cutting university research funding

  1. For the record (and without commenting on the other issues raised), at the time Hillary attended Wellesley College she could scarcely have been described as a “… [child] of the upper classes who [doesn’t] need to worry too much about making their way in the world.”

    I would think that the same could be said of Nora Ephron (Wellesley), David Baltimore (Swarthmore), or Joseph Stiglitz (Amherst) … just to pick a random few.

  2. It might be more accurate to say that large 1st year uni classes subsidise other areas, both teaching and research. You have economies of scale, so a unit with 500 students can run more efficiently than one with 50.

    But I’m not sure I understand their argument over funding. Sure, you could waste money trying to accurately work out exactly how much funding is needed to teach each unit. But in reality, you have an imperfect formula and rely on the university to distribute the money as best it can.

    Right now, the funding per student is too low. My uni is probably typical, where we can maintain things, but not improve them.

  3. @Andrew Norton
    The reason why the teacher/research combination exists is because 1) without a research incentive, ‘good teachers’ end up in industry on more money and universities are finding it very expensive to buy-in these ‘good teaching-only’ staff. Not unusual for universities to use big 4 contractors to cover (continuing) gaps in tax & accounting at great cost. The move to teaching-only is not about improving quality with new positions but really about not being able to make the hard decisions with poorly performing staff. 2) Great researchers also tend to be great teachers – some of the best performing humanities courses with great student numbers and retention rates into 2nd & 3rd year had level D & E academics delivering 1st year subjects. Not surprisingly when costs were cut and teaching was done by level A & B academics student numbers and retention rates fell.

  4. Interesting intervention today from Ian Jacobs, the new VC of UNSW.

    In a dramatic break with the longstanding position of his fellow Group of Eight vice-chancellors, University of NSW vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs said higher fees are not necessary for Australia to have a high quality university system.

    “There is no crisis in Australian higher education,” Professor Jacobs told Fairfax Media.

    “Our system is the envy of the world.

    “Fundamentally, the teaching side of university education works well.”

    This could be interpreted many ways, not mutually exclusive.

    1. An attempt by UNSW to change the G8 line
    2. An attempt by Jacobs, the new kid on the block, to wrest leadership from the old guard in the G8
    3. UNSW is splitting from the G8 on this issue
    4. The breakdown of the G8 as a coherent lobbying group
    5. The continuing purging of Abbottism, at least on some issues.

  5. @Vik
    Most of the research I’ve seen says that class sizes actually have very little impact on learning outcomes. Changing staff:student ratios is also one of the most expensive ways to try to improve things. agree with everything else.

  6. @Nevil Kingston-Brown

    I think the comment Conrad made is relevant here.

    It depends what you mean by ‘classes’. From my own experience at a regional university, lectures do not need to be small but the tutorials and pracs that followed up the lecture do need to have a staff:student ratio such that students are able to actively participate face to face and receive individual feedback.

    Online discussion groups are not an adequate substitute for actual contact with a lecturer or tutor.

    My experience was back in the 90’s when there was money for regional institutes to become universities and do ‘research’.

    According to my son who is currently enrolled at the same University, there is nothing like the experience and access to staff that was available 20 years ago. I can’t believe how little he gets for his money.

  7. Here’s a list of just some of the things that universities spend money on:
    salaries of academic staff;
    salaries of non-academic staff, including staff who answer student enquiries, staff who prepare reports required by law, lab technicians, IT support people, facilities maintenance people, library staff, accounts staff, journalists, lawyers, archivists;
    laboratory equipment and supplies;
    library resources;
    building construction and repairs;
    electricity bills;
    copyright licence fees.

    I don’t see how to divide this list of expenditure items into ‘teaching’ and ‘research’; it’s not obvious how a university could shift expenditure from teaching to research or from research to teaching by shifting expenditure from some of these items to others.

    If a university spends more money on hiring more academic staff, we have to suppose that they will do both more teaching and more research, but I doubt the best way of achieving this would be to shift expenditure from all other areas into hiring more academic staff; academic staff need money to be spent in most of those other areas both to assist them to teach and to assist them to research.

    Increases in the total funding for universities should enable them both to teach more and to research more. Changes to the ways in which universities are funded, even without any increase in total funding, could affect the way the time of academic staff is divided between teaching and research. The way academic staff divide their time between teaching and research is important. There are probably some individual cases where the specific features of how universities move their expenditure around internally affect the division of academic staff time between teaching and research, but in general it’s the wrong place to look; saying ‘there is a problem with the way universities are moving expenditure from teaching to research [or, from research to teaching]’ is almost certainly a mistake.

  8. Good point, J-D. While the information you supplied is known to academics, it is apparently not known to Andrew Norton. The term ‘independent think tank’ acquires the meaning of ‘independent of knowledge of the production technology’ or, put more simply, independent of reality.

  9. @J-D

    What proportion of a university’s budget is spent on these things? (I’m not having a dig at you; I’d like to know.)

  10. “Specialisation generally increases performance and productivity, as economists have observed for centuries.”
    Perhaps this has been known for centuries. However, in general, the world has generally been a less complex system. When systems are simple or complicated there is more predictability and agents are more likely to be independent. With complexity there is less independence among agents (of which there may be many) and less predictability. Systems may display self-organisation and emergence. Outcomes non-linearity and thresholds. Among other things, collaboration and diversity are needed. Perhaps we need to know more about complexity and increasing specialisation. I think I can remember in Physiology 101 in 1954 being told about the discovery of how the kidney concentrates. Engineers pointed out that the nephron is a countercurrent multiplier. Engineers knew a lot about countercurrent multipliers. Such enrichment through diversity is not uncommon. Is it enhanced by super-specialisation?
    Much “research” is just doing your job, keeping good records, analysing the data, using it to help find ways to improve, and teaching others the process. Safety in hospitals is a good example. Sadly when safety is very good and funds short, there can be heard mumblings in the corridor that expenditure on safety (“research”) is too high and should be curtailed when in fact the safety is due in no small part to the safety system. In some disciplines, service, teaching and “research” can be so interrelated that it may make little sense to be arguing “either/or”.

  11. @Ikonoclast

    That gives figures for UQ in 2014 according to which salaries and related expenses for academic staff were about three tenths of total expenditure and salaries and related expenses for non-academic staff were about one quarter of total expenditure. So that’s already over half the total. Next on the list is depreciation and amortisation, the biggest single chunk of which is for depreciation of buildings, but all of that together is only about one fourteenth of reported expenditure.

    (There’s no breakdown of expenditure for non-academic staff into different categories of functions those staff are employed to perform; nor for academic staff, if it comes to that.)

  12. @SamB

    “just to pick a random few” I think you mean “just to pick a non-representative sample”. All these colleges have admissions policies under which some bright students from middle class and even working class backgrounds are subsidised by the upper-class majority.

    Even so, I was a little surprised to see you list Hillary Clinton (father was a successful small businessman) and Nora Ephron (both parents successful screenwriters) as counterexamples. Both of these would have been well inside the top 10 per cent of the income distribution, I would say.

    Admittedly. Stiglitz (father an insurance salesman and mother a teacher) came from a solidly middle class family. But if your policy proposal is “be as smart as Joe Stiglitz, then you can get a scholarship to a top school”, I think its applicability will be a bit limited.

  13. @John Quiggin

    “be as smart as Joe Stiglitz” is worse than asking everyone to “be above average”. I mention this only because people imply this so often, that it is stupefying. Joe Hockey’s “get a good job to get into the housing market” belongs in this category, along with any number of statements made by coalition front benchers recently.

  14. @totaram

    Some people don’t even know what smart is.

    I thought I was stupid until I went to Uni – because of the encouragement from my Social Security case worker – and found out that the things I liked to do meant I was actually above average in some things that are valued at Uni.

    I was very lucky and I’m quite sure that I am not the only person who could have gone through life without ever discovering that they are smarter than the average rather than too stupid to get a real job.

  15. At the risk of showing my age, I always thought the CAE model had a lot going for it. Institutions focused on teaching / training at the tertiary level separated from universities which had research focus though both need to be funded well. If they were re-instituted today, I could see the G8’s hoovering up the funds and CAEs going the way of TAFEs.

  16. There are benefits associated with specialisation, but there are also dangers associated with over-specialisation. It can be a mistake for people to spread themselves too thinly, but it can also be a mistake for people to focus too narrowly. Advocates of more specialisation of academics into teaching-only and research-only need to explain not that there are benefits from specialisation, but why they think there will be benefits (outweighing the costs) from this particular kind of specialisation.

    Also, specialisation of academic staff, some into teaching and some into research, is not directly connected with the balance, in the aggregate, between teaching and research. You could move from a scenario with academic staff who each divide their time and effort between teaching and research in the proportion T to R to a scenario where academic staff are divided in the proportion T to R between those who do teaching only and those who do research only; this might be a good idea or a bad one, but it wouldn’t change the proportioning of teaching to research in total university effort, or output.

  17. If the creation of a category of teaching-only academic positions does not have a high probability of shifting the balance of total university effort away from research towards teaching, or of improving the quality of university teaching in general (and it doesn’t), is there an effect it has a higher probability of producing? Yes: the creation of a category of teaching-only academic positions has a high probability of reinforcing the hierarchy of status. Some people like that idea; some of the people who like the idea are reluctant to say so explicitly (and possibly even reluctant to admit it explicitly to themselves); for them, other pretexts are welcome no matter how spurious.

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