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
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.