Education Minister Jason Clare has just released a much anticipated review of how research is funded in Australia.
This is the judgement of the federal law underlying the Australian Research Council (ARC).
The ARC is the independent body that funds non-medical university research in Australia. Thus, it plays a hugely important role in the careers of academics.
This review follows years of concerns about political interference in ARC decisions and low success rates for academics applying for funding.
What does the review say?
The review began last year and was led by Queensland University of Technology Vice-Chancellor Margaret Sheil. It is a comprehensive product with ten well-considered recommendations to improve control room procedures. The review says this one
aim to increase the confidence of the government and the research community in the ARC.
- clarification of the purpose of the ARC
- more clarity and insight into the role and impact of the ARC in relation to supporting academic careers and
- more ARC Scholarships for Indigenous Academics.
At the heart of the review is the recommendation for a new ARC Board of Directors, appointed by the Minister of Education, to run the ARC free from political interference.
As a result, ministers would no longer be able to intervene at the last minute and block the financing of certain projects.
The aim is to make the ARC more independent – in law and practice – so that it can operate at a distance from the current government.
A more autonomous ARC
Historically, the review harks back to the establishment of the ARC as an autonomous non-governmental organization in 1988. But even then, the last word on grants was given to the then Minister of Education.
As noted in the review, since the 2001 update of the legislation, the ARC’s autonomy has declined, as has confidence in its work.
This has been highlighted by ministerial interventions to veto grants in the humanities and social sciences in at least five different cases (most recently by former minister Stuart Robert in 2021).
Modification of ministerial veto power
Significantly, the review recommended that the ARC be given full authority to make research grant decisions (officially called the National Competitive Grants Program).
It notes that checks and balances must be in place and that the minister can still intervene in the “extraordinary circumstance of a potential threat to national security”.
Here the board will be critical. It will be responsible for appointing the CEO of the ARC, as well as the panel of experts (which assesses grant applications). It then approves the college’s grant recommendations.
The board would still be appointed by the minister. It would include a chairman who is a “prominent Australian, highly regarded by the universities” and six other members with combined skills in various ARC disciplines, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island research leadership.
The role of the minister in appointing the board and chairman does not guarantee that these appointments are immune from partisan politics and ideology. However, the aim to keep ministers at a distance from the ARC subsidy processes is a step in the right direction.
Easier grant applications
One of the biggest frustrations researchers have with the ARC process is the time it takes to apply for grants and the low success rates.
Here the review recommends a constructive change. Under a new model, researchers would sign up through a two-step process.
First, they would provide a brief outline of the research objective to the ARC. The ARC would review it and make recommendations on whether a full second-round application is warranted.
It does not guarantee an increase in success rates as it relates to the substantive issue of available funding. But it does alleviate the burdensome and overly bureaucratic approach of the current model, both for researchers and university research branches.
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A new controlling role
A decisive recommendation is to change the role of the ARC in assessing research for quality. Previously this was done through the Excellence in Research Australia process through submissions from universities.
The review strongly opposes the existing statistics-based model, pointing to “evidence that statistics can be biased or inherently flawed”.
Instead, the review wants to see a new approach that the ARC would work with TEQSA – the university regulator – to develop a framework for research quality and impact.
This change will be welcomed by universities and academics as the previous model tended to be top heavy in its approach.
What about financing?
One problem with the review is the silence on funding. While this silence was not unexpected (the terms of reference were intended not to fund the proceedings), it is still a problem.
For universities, the ARC funding currently does not cover their costs in both infrastructure and personnel to pay for the ARC grant.
Universities are thus largely dependent on foreign tuition fees to cover research costs. As the pandemic has shown us, these are subject to fluctuations.
This unpredictability has consequences for the budgets and staffing of universities, but also for the quality of the research.
A step forward
Overall, the revision is a step in the right direction for the academic research community and for the clarity of the ARC’s purpose and procedures.
But the big question remains: will the ARC get more resources for research in Australia?
In this regard, we must turn to the current revision of the University Agreement. The federal government says this ARC review will be considered part of wider discussions surrounding the accord. Here we can expect a design in June.
When it comes to the ARC assessment, Clare says he will “consider the findings (…) and respond in due course”.
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