Volume 20, Issue 5
Degrees by research are not something that most of us, especially in the law faculty, give much thought to unless we are directly considering doing one ourselves. But the importance of research to well-rounded universities, and indeed society as a whole, cannot be underestimated. It is for that reason that the government’s proposed changes to research funding should be criticised by all students no matter what we study.
The Department of Education, Skills and Employment is the body that oversees funding for research degrees (HDRs - Higher Degrees by research), and it has been tasked by the Government’s 2021-2022 budget to implement a new scheme ostensibly aimed at increasing researcher employability by increasing funding to universities whose research degrees incorporate industry internships. This initiative is part of the Research Training Program (RTP), which is the scheme under which the funding given to universities for their research degrees is determined. Currently, funding is determined according to three factors given different weight – 25% of funding per student is determined according to how much competitive income the University receives for that research, and another 25% is allocated on ‘Engagement’ income (essentially non-competitive income).
The other 50% of funding per research student is determined by ‘completions’, or essentially how many students actually graduate with their research degrees. This is obviously problematic for many reasons beyond the scope of this discussion. These completions are, confusingly, further broken down and sorted according to various weightings (on a positive note, completions by indigenous students are weighted higher than non-indigenous in an effort to encourage a greater indigenous presence in research). It is through these weightings that the industry internships changes will take effect – once implemented, researchers who undertake an industry placement of at least 60 days over three months, within the first 18 months of their degree, will net their university a greater completions weighting than those who do not. For example, current low-cost research doctorates attract a weighting of 2.0, whereas the same doctorate with an industry internship will, under the new scheme, attract a weighting of 4.0, doubling the value of the 50% of research funding that graduations bring universities.
My contention is that this move to incentivise industry-placement focussed research is rooted in a neoliberal, market logic which ought to be rejected in the university context. To be clear, links between industry and academia are obviously very beneficial and should nonetheless be encouraged, but by making higher funding contingent upon these internships, a market logic is imposed upon universities which will inevitably result in a race to the bottom – students will lose out, academics will lose out, and the only winners will be the Government’s budget numbers (as the economic productivity of the research sector is ostensibly boosted). The shift in universities across the world from being places of learning to becoming vocational centres of employment training is a seemingly inexorable trend, but changes like this progress the transformation so quietly and insidiously that most students and academics don’t have much of a chance to really question what is going on.
There is an ingrained stigma in Australian society against doing anything at university which cannot be readily explained to non-tertiary educated family and friends (almost always couched in terms of what sort of job you expect to get at the end of it), and this makes research and education for its own sake incredibly hard to defend. But we must nevertheless. When research degrees are given any value or justification at all, it is almost universally in terms of employable skills – such discourses usually run along the lines of ‘being able to gather and analyse data’ and other similar resume beautifying platitudes.
Naturally we should want students to be able to get jobs after their education - it is of course why most of us are here - but is that what is really happening? The changes are couched in the language of ‘benefitting industry by enabling innovation’, but is the implication here that innovation cannot occur unless it is driven by the market? In fact, there is good reason to believe otherwise. Innovation and new ideas thrive best in an atmosphere of academic freedom (in the sense of the freedom to pursue any particular path of research one is interested in), but in industry research is often constrained to what the market forces operating on a particular company are dictating. As we know, profit and the public good are not always linked one-to-one, and so any move to further increase academia’s reliance on corporate priorities and goodwill is a bad one.
The industry placement changes to research funding are scheduled to take effect from 2024.
Matt Harper is a second year JD student
The views in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of De Minimis or its Editors.