Home | Policy & Reform | Funding | IRU says current funding model stifles innovation, calls for greater research autonomy

IRU says current funding model stifles innovation, calls for greater research autonomy

The Innovative Research Universities (IRU) group wants universities to have more say in how they spend their funding dollars. They say that universities only get to fully determine how a fifth of their endowment is spent.

Raising the issue yesterday at the House of Representatives Inquiry into Funding Australia’s Research, IRU executive director Conor King noted that in 2016, for instance, universities received $5.3 billion, yet only $1.5 billion of this could be spent without restriction. The government reserved most of the remainder for specific research streams.

This matters, the IRU contends, because ‘closed’ funding hinders universities’ ability to coordinate research, and also limits their capacity for innovation.

How does it stymie these pursuits? Bradley Smith, manager of research strategy and special projects at James Cook University (an IRU member) says it’s mostly an issue of timing. “The more discretionary funding is reduced as a share (and diverted to prop up systemically underfunded direct grants) the harder it is to sustain strategic program investment,” Smith said. This also applies to infrastructure funding.

“It is university-wide funding [not directed grants] that keeps academic researchers paid and allows them to support the whole research theme,” an IRU spokesperson added. An example of this is JCU’s aquaculture facility. Though it receives government funding, to initially attract that, as well as to keep it operational, the university has to invest significant sums of its own.

Also, because there are “gaps in grants”, smooth career pathways for new researchers are not ensured. Hence, they have neither the capacity nor the security to undertake ‘riskier’ projects.

Lastly, grant conferrals, in general, simply discourage risk.

The IRU claims ‘closed’, that is, directed funding, is an ever-growing issue. Between 2006 and 2016, the proportion of ‘open’ funding decreased by 6 per cent.

“The IRU argues that block funding should be the next target for a real increase, to give universities a greater say over which research issues are supported and which are not,” King said.

“Universities are best-placed to know which research is most likely to have the biggest impact while delivering the best value for money.”

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