Double the number of disciplines achieve world standard or above

A national report on the work of Australia’s university researchers has found that the number of disciplines in higher education institutions performing at and above world standard has doubled over the past two years, with 10 universities rated above the world standard for research, including four performing at well above world standard.

The report notes that more than 450 instances of fields of research were ranked at, above or well above world standard, and in all 22 broad fields of research in between three and 14 Australian universities achieved a rating at above or well above world standard.

Prepared by the Australian Research Council, the report was released by Science and Research Minister Senator Chris Evans, who said the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) report showed Australia was on track to have 10 universities in the world's top 100 by 2025 – a target set out in the government’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, which was released by Prime Minister Julia Gillard last month.

"The report shows that 97% of government funding in competitive grants, or more than A$3.75 billion [US$3.9 billion], over the reporting period was invested in research at or above world standard,” Evans said.

"There has been a 24% increase in the amount of research being undertaken, a 16% increase in the number of patents being secured and a 9% increase in the number of researchers employed. As a nation, we have outstanding strength in a growing number of disciplines, including medicine, law, history, engineering and business and management. “

He said the federal government had made a record investment of almost A$9 billion in science, research and innovation this year. This was delivering “real value for money and boosting opportunities for researchers, developing new technologies, generating knowledge and delivering better living standards".

The government had deliberately invested heavily in fellowships to keep the world's best researchers in Australia and more of them were “now calling Australia home and, as a result, a greater number of our universities are producing more world-class research", Evans said.

By next year, the government would have invested almost A$240 million in more than 80 Laureate Fellowships, specifically designed to attract and retain the world's most elite researchers. Evans added that the ERA report showed the investment was paying off, with the size of and productivity in the research sector increasing, and the greater number of researchers generating more output overall and more output per researcher.

The research council said it would consult with universities on the inclusion of impact measures to help further track university research performance before the next round in 2015.

Time to take stock

But the National Tertiary Education Union said that after two comprehensive assessments of university research outputs, in 2010 and 2012, it was time to take stock and review the effects of the ERA.

“We need to understand how the ERA is influencing institutional behaviour, the kinds of research being undertaken and the impacts on research career development,” said union National President Jeannie Rea.

She said it was no surprise the 2012 ERA results demonstrated that research productivity and quality were on the rise, with the number of research ‘outputs’ evaluated increasing by 24% since 2010, along with a 5% increase in full-time equivalent staff engaged in research.

“Australia is getting very good value for its investment in university research, which is something to celebrate, but we need to be cautious of becoming besotted with ERA itself. It is the quality research that contributes to our future economic and social prosperity, not the instrument for the measurement of research quality,” Rea said.

“A review should also focus on the capacity of researchers to undertake and pursue research in accordance with the principles of intellectual freedom.

“The international literature is telling us there is a point where the efficiency dividends derived from performance-based assessment and funding, such as through the ERA, can only be achieved at the expense of institutional autonomy and intellectual freedom. The danger is that research, in some areas, will be undervalued and discouraged.”

Rea said the review should evaluate the ERA’s cost-effectiveness and its broader ramifications for the research community, before the 2015 round. The union had undertaken a qualitative evaluation of the impacts of the ERA assessment process and the results would be released early next year.

Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said the strong results shown by the ERA outcomes reflected the investment and effort directed at research by universities “right across the country”. She said the results demonstrated Australia’s capacity to produce the kind of world-class research needed to power the nation’s innovation, productivity and prosperity.

“What we see today are ratings improving across the board compared to when this exercise was first performed in 2010.

“The ERA results also show further increases in the productivity of our university researchers, demonstrating that our national research strengths are increasing as universities throw their firepower behind the kinds of research needed for our national wellbeing, such as science, health and engineering.”

Robinson said the ERA outcome sent loud signals to government and business about the importance that sustainable funding and support played in ensuring universities continued to buttress Australia future economic and social prosperity.

But with significant amounts of funding stripped from research programmes this year, Robinson said a key question was how long the strong research performance could be maintained.