By Jill Rowbotham
Over-concentration of research funding in elite universities risks weakening higher education systems and research productivity, according to a specialist in the US sector.
Australia was as vulnerable as the US, said Sean Gallagher, chief operating officer of the University of Sydney's US Studies Centre.
But the federal budget allocation of $500 million to regional and rural universities through the Education Investment Fund had been a good move.
"To achieve the macro outcome of sustaining national research capacity in a value-for-money kind of way, you need healthy research competition among many players and not just concentration on the few," Dr Gallagher said. "If research funding continues to further concentrate in the Group of Eight [universities] there will be less competition and Australia will have a poorer outcome."
He cited recent work by James Adams, of the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US, covering the 18 years to 1999, during which US gross domestic product was on the rise, and before the surge in Chinese university research volume. It showed the leading 110 American universities produced 80 per cent of the nation's scientific research output.
But in that time overall output of scientific academic papers declined in private universities by 11 per cent and in public universities by 23 per cent.
"When the scale does not continue to increase - as is the case with private US universities that deliberately limit their size - there is a point beyond which more concentration of financial resources cannot be used efficiently, thus decreasing returns to scale," Dr Gallagher said.
Given the Go8 universities attracted about 70 per cent of research funding, Dr Gallagher advocated boosting Australia's second tier, the Australian Technology Network universities and the Innovative Research Universities.
He also argued pockets of excellence in regional institutions be further supported. "Society has to encourage those universities, to build them up; give them what they need to compete both in research and infrastructure," he said.
But he warned that less established players needed to be wary about how they spent research and infrastructure dollars.
"It's about the right type of investment - 40 of the US third-tier universities made investments in research in the past 10 years but more than half of them fell in ranking because they did not strategically invest in quality. For success you need quality people doing quality projects."
Dr Gallagher said the federal government faced a difficult balancing act if pressure increased on the non-Go8s to absorb most new students in the system from next year, when enrolment caps were lifted.
"[That's] going to be a real challenge for the Gillard government . . . combined with the 40 per cent Bradley target," he said.
"If the Go8s only accept marginal increases in student numbers, the challenge will be to avoid ending up with teaching-only universities at the bottom and a few research-intensive universities at the top. Clearly, the Gillard government wants research universities across the country . . . so they have to make sure research doesn't suffer in the universities taking on many more students."
The non-Go8s could struggle to maintain and develop research capacity while they coped with the increased teaching load, he said.
"This is what is currently happening to public universities in the US. For there to be a good national research outcomes the solution has to be local; that we have fantastic star researchers and students in more universities rather than less."