AUSTRALIA: Millions more for research?

Israeli authorities' refusal to let some foreign academics enter the West Bank has had a huge impact on the development of Palestinian institutions, said a British academic recently denied entry to the West Bank and forced to cancel a lecture at Birzeit University.

"The government recognises the vital importance of Australia's research workforce to its success in the increasingly competitive and knowledge-driven global economy," the document states. "It has recently outlined its intent to develop a research workforce strategy to 2020 to ensure that Australia is capable of meeting future demand for researchers in its academic and wider workforce.

It says the government has already put in place incentives to encourage "the best and brightest Australian and international students to undertake higher research degrees and to encourage demand through better linkages with business".

This year's budget also increased the stipend provided to postgraduates undertaking research and the government says it is now considering other recommendations arising from the inquiry.

During its seven-month investigation last year, the House committee received more than 100 submissions. Almost all made pretty depressing reading as one by one they spelt out the gloomy situation: universities are in crisis; the nation's falling PhD enrolments represent a national calamity; Australia has far too few research-trained people to meet its immediate much less its future needs.

There was more: too many talented researchers who could form the base for the next generation are being lost to the system; in only seven of the nation's higher education institutions do more than 70% of academics have PhDs while in 14, little more than half hold that crucial qualification...

Although the inquiry covered a wide range of research and research training issues, the committee said the majority related to the adequacy - or inadequacy as it turned out - of research spending. It said the amount allocated to research, and on training masters degree and PhD students to become researchers, was far below what was required if Australia was to be competitive on the world stage.

But it did not say how much additional money was needed. Some submissions, however, noted that to bring spending on research and development to the OECD average alone meant adding another A$5 billion (US$4.6 billion) to the present bill.

The committee also pointed out that the final report produced by the Australia 2020 summit last year had recommended a doubling in R&D investment over the next decade.

The inquiry's report and its recommendations were released on 1 December and received with rapture by the various interest groups in universities. Yet it was another 10 months before the government finally gave its reaction.

Admittedly, it had also to consider reports from two other major reviews, the Bradley review of higher education and the Cutler review of the national innovation system, both of which were also released late last year.

In its commentary, the government says the relevance of recommendations from the three reviews, and the need to consider university research and research training within the innovation and tertiary education systems, meant it had to defer its response to the House report.

Nevertheless, the government generally endorsed what the committee proposed - beginning with support for "enhancing the quality of teaching and infrastructure at Australian schools" while pointing to the billions it has already committed to its infrastructure and curriculum reforms and its efforts to boost the quality of maths and science education.

The reference to schools in a document largely concerned with university research arises because the committee report concluded that the path to a career as an Australian researcher began not at university but at school - and as early as the primary years.

Releasing the report, federal MP and committee chair Maria Vamvakinou declared there was overwhelming evidence of the importance of primary and secondary education "as a critical window" for developing a love of learning, an interest in research and an awareness of the myriad career options it opens".

The report expressed concern that Australia's school students currently shunned subjects in the sciences, maths and humanities "in favour of others that appear easier or more attractive in terms of maximising tertiary scores...This is likely to lead to fewer students acquiring the basic skills and knowledge that are required later in life to embark upon a research pathway".

Among its recommendations, the committee called for the "quality of teaching and infrastructure of primary and secondary schools to be improved, particularly in the fields of maths and science". It was this call that the government response referred to.

In considering how best to improve research training and research outputs in universities, the document refers to the current development of a research workforce strategy and says the government wants to ensure that "priority is given to supporting research in areas of identified national need".

"Part of the development of the research workforce strategy will involve an examination of issues relating to the incentives in higher education that attract and retain researchers in areas of current and future skills need," the document says.

The House committee made clear the key people involved in the future of Australian research were the postgraduates, since 70% of university research relies on their contributions.

Given the government mostly endorsed the committee's recommendations on postgraduate support, even if the extent of future funding is uncertain, it was not surprising the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations welcomed the response.

Council president Nigel Palmer said that overall the government had demonstrated a willingness to tackle the crucial issues facing postgraduates and early career researchers. "My council looks forward to working with the government on moving ahead with important reforms in this area," Palmer said.

* A version of this article was published in the Melbourne Age newspaper last week.