Discussion paper

Universities are integral to Australia’s research effort and provide the foundation of skills and knowledge required for the nation’s long-term success. Research and innovation have been consistently identified as essential ingredients for improving productivity and quality of life. If Australia is to continue to compete internationally, we must critically look at our performance and identify ways of strengthening all elements of the system.

Australia’s research performance compares well internationally, both in productivity and research excellence. In terms of academic impact, there are clear areas of strength across the breadth of disciplines and Australia’s researchers are highly regarded. There is, however, room for improvement, especially relative to the best-performing nations. Knowledge exchange and the ease of translation of research into the broader economy and community are Australia’s main areas requiring substantial attention.

An examination of the countries chosen for comparison—Switzerland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, the United Kingdom and Canada—brings to light several similarities in their approaches that should be considered for Australia’s future approach:

  • Long-term strategies and plans have been implemented, including targets and priority areas, accompanied by significant and ongoing support.
  • The strategies focus on areas of national interest and comparative advantage and take into account the country’s industrial structure and location.
  • The unique role of universities is recognised, as is the need to support a balance of investigator-led and mission-led research.

If we are to improve Australia’s performance and achieve the broader aims for research, a range of matters needs to be considered by the university sector and government:

  • Australia needs a long-term plan that outlines national priority areas and secures ongoing and reliable support for the fundamentals of the research system.
  • Reward and recognition mechanisms at the researcher and university levels should be critically examined.
  • We need to support a balance of basic and applied and investigator-led and mission-led research, maintaining the strong focus on research excellence.
  • Australia must increase its efforts in both domestic and international collaboration, especially in the priority areas identified.
  • The career path for researchers in all sectors must be improved. We must ensure our best and brightest can move freely between industry and academia.
  • Holistic, ongoing funding for national research infrastructure is imperative.
  • A transactional view of university–industry collaboration will not deliver the deep and productive relationships required to improve the translation of research.

In view of accelerating investment in research and innovation by our Asian neighbours and traditional competitors, Australia could be close to the proverbial ‘tipping point’, whereby we are not able to achieve our goal of a high-wage, high-growth economy.

A national strategy that addresses all facets of the system, targets both supply and demand, and includes long-term financial commitments is needed in order to bring about cultural change and improve Australia’s research and innovation performance.

Universities Australia has prepared this paper to inform current and future debate about university research and its role in driving Australia’s competitiveness.

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