Researching the Asian Century

Every decade or so, it seems, Labor rediscovers Asia like some sort of latter day Vasco da Gama. Gough Whitlam, Paul Keating, and now the Prime Minister Julia Gillard have all, over the years, come to the conclusion that geography is destiny and Australia’s future lies with our neighbours to the north. Never more so than today and tomorrow when the economic growth of China, India and other Tigers, Pandas and Elephants make Europe and the Unites States look like washed-up has-beens.

Which is what happens to Western governments when they accrue excessive public debt and seek to dump IOUs in the laps of future generations. When governments raise too little and spend too much to ensure intergenerational equity.

For most part the “Australia in the Asian Century” white paper is a truism. It is full of statements that no one would disagree or argue with. Everyone is by now aware of the changes taking place in Asia, though many might not be quite aware of the breath-taking extent of these transformations. Those with drive and intuition clearly want to take advantage of this phenomenon—whether they are in business, in academia, or elsewhere.

I do not think there is one Vice-Chancellor here today who is not keenly aware of the opportunities and challenges that Asia’s rise presents to their institutions. I do not think there is one university represented here today which already does not have some ties to Asian higher education institutions and which is not planning to increase these ties in the future. But just because the “Australia in Asian Century” paper does not say much that is new, it does not mean that it is not a useful reminder that we, as a nation, as a higher education sector, as individual universities, can—and should—be doing more, doing it better, doing it smarter.

Speaking in 1959, then Senator John F. Kennedy famously noted that “When written in Chinese the word crisis is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.” As Chinese linguists have since pointed out this reading is somewhat of a stretch and wishful thinking. Nevertheless, the appeal of this anecdote lies in its usefulness as a reminder and a call to action. So what can we—and what should we—be doing more of, doing it better, doing it smarter?

Labor: Ten Universities in the Top 100

As far as universities are concerned, the headline from the Asian Century White Paper was the government’s target—or aspiration—of having ten Australian universities in the world top 100 ranking by 2025. It is an ambitious target, to say the least. Not just because, as the University of Technology Sydney Vice-Chancellor Professor Ross Milbourne calculates, to reach it the government would have to spend an extra $10 billion a year on universities. Or, on university research to be precise, since university rankings are almost wholly driven by research performance.

Ten billion dollars would almost double current Commonwealth spending on higher education. The government spending another $10 billion they do not have—well, I can imagine that. On higher education and research—well, I cannot imagine that. The target is also ambitious, because it would make the Australian university system arguably the best in the world.

It is difficult to predict how other countries might perform on the so called Academic Ranking of World Universities in 2025 or exactly how big their populations are going to be by then, but if we took this year’s Shanghai ranking and imagined that Australia had ten universities in the top 100, it would mean that as a country we would have more than twice as many top universities as the United States per head of population and more than three times as many as the United Kingdom.

In fact only Norway and Switzerland would beat us—but only just—per capita. A great result? Certainly. Expensive? Very. Achievable? Well, founding Chief Executive Officer of Universities Australia, Professor Glenn Withers disagrees.

His two main options for getting ten universities in the top 100 are either to create five new Australian National Universities, i.e. small, elite, research-intensive universities, or to ensure that one in three as opposed to one five research grant applications is successful, as is currently the case.

His price tag for either of these options comes to under $1 billion annually.

While I certainly sympathise with the aspiration, the experience in government teaches me that sadly things tend to be rarely as cheap and straight-forward as they should be.

Be that as it may, the Coalition is certainly interested in helping our researchers make the most of their time and talents by reducing red tape and simplifying the grant application and administration process. We are not going to make it far into the Asian Century when our research staff are often spending, I am told, thirty or even forty per cent of their time doing paperwork. I will not claim that this alone will lift another five Australian universities into the top 100, but it is a start.

Research in the Asian Century

When all is said and done, I do not think we should necessarily get too caught up in these sorts of targets. They do serve as useful headline grabbers for the government—but if we want to be serious about it, we should aim for realistic outcomes, carefully plan how we are going to get there, and make sure we can commit adequate resources to getting there. From that point of view, the White Paper fails the test.

But putting aside some metric pulled out of thin air—five or ten or fifteen universities in the top fifty or 100 or 200—what does the Asian Century mean for Australian universities, for our university research, and for research excellence? It means primarily two things: greater outreach and collaboration with Asian universities, and greater collaboration with our businesses to better leverage what Australia as an economy and a society has to offer to the region. You want to talk about research impact—there is perhaps no greater impact Australian research can have than to help achieve these objectives.

Research Collaboration

This is an Australian Technology Network and Group of Eight symposium, so I do not have to sell you on the benefits of research collaboration. Indeed the International Links report released by Universities Australia on Monday showed that Australian Universities now have over 7,000 agreements with overseas universities, 71 per cent—or around 5,000—of which relate to joint academic and research work. I note that China has for the first time overtaken the United States as our leading partner. And of the 885 agreements with China, 89 per cent included academic or research collaboration, which is much higher than average.

We are well positioned to do more —particularly in these areas where Australia has plenty of expertise—medicine, including tropical medicine, resources, agriculture to name just a few. We are not just strong in these areas but also stronger than countries like China, where a lot of research is concentrated in physics, chemistry and engineering. This, of course, gives us a great advantage and a selling point. Perhaps the most valuable way of engaging with the region is for Australian universities to establish branches in Asian countries, not just to teach local students who might be unwilling or unable to travel to Australia to get their degrees, but to bring local and Australian researchers working on the ground in Asian countries.

We should not forget about exchanges of research staff either—more Australian researchers to work overseas but also more Asian researchers to work in Australia.

In particular, this includes opportunities for young researchers from overseas to perhaps fill in areas of local need and contribute to Australia in the longer term rather than just one or two year stints. Every time an Australian university enters into research project or a partnership, every time staff, students and knowledge are exchanged, such collaboration impacts not only on the productivity and output of Australian higher education but also on our engagement with the region. It builds relationships and networks, it creates ties and good will, it helps generate further and wider opportunities for public and private sectors.

It is an impact that ripples and reverberates across time and distance. It is a force multiplier.

Universities-business collaboration

As I mentioned, international research collaboration is not the only way to advance Australia’s interests in the Asian Century. The other area where research creates impact greater than the sum of its parts is in collaboration between universities and the private sector, to assist in market penetration in the region. The challenges of the interaction, cooperation and collaboration between universities and the business world are many and have preoccupied many great minds before, including earlier this year in a Go8 Backgrounder “The university-business nexus in Australia”.

There are no easy answers on how to better marry the very different cultures of academia and commerce. It is, however, in mutual interests that such cooperation grows. The Australian economy has always been criticised for being overly reliant on resources exports.

Our country was first said to be riding on the sheep’s back—and I guess this means that in recent years it has been riding on a miner’s back. There is nothing wrong with feeding Asia’s seemingly insatiable appetite for raw materials, but clearly the key to success in the 21st century lies in innovation, in smart economy, in value adding. The private sector needs your help and expertise to solve problems that can unlock productivity and generate billions of dollars in new opportunities. You need the private sector to help you diversify and increase your income streams, as well as infuse outside expertise and ideas.

Fine-tuning ERA

All this contributes to making the case that the Excellence in Research in Australia methodology which relies so heavily on getting published in academic journals is getting somewhat dated and increasingly one-dimensional. It tends to conjure images of some semi-mythical golden age of old, when gentlemen scholars would while away their quiet and gentile days writing learned papers, quite unperturbed by students or even less by the world outside the ivory towers. It is not that getting published is not important—of course it is—but, as more and more people are coming to acknowledge, there is more to research impact than citations.

The practical impact of research must also be considered—increased competitiveness, generation of employment and exports, and improved profitability of businesses. It might be difficult to measure but should not be underestimated. Is international collaboration itself an impact deserving recognition? It is an interesting question. Is helping a business to develop new technology that will result in a multi-million export contract and dozens of new local jobs an impact that should likewise be recognised? In my opinion seemingly yes.

It seems to me that whatever new forms Excellence in Research for Australia continues to evolve into, it should provide greater incentives—or at least remove any disincentives that might currently exist—for researchers to engage with business, knowing that the time spent on applied research that has a real and practical impact will contribute at least as much to their rankings as time spent on writing and publishing. These changes would make a substantial contribution towards boosting both our research effort in the Asian century and the prospects of the Australian economy in the Asian century.

These are edited remarks of Brett Mason at the joint Go8/ATN Symposium, November 2012.

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