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The future of agricultural RD&E Part 3: The role of Universities

Mick Keogh - Monday, August 26, 2013

The research engine of the agricultural innovation system in Australia includes the CSIRO, the State Departments of Primary Industry, Universities, and researchers employed in the private sector. In many ways the Universities play a crucial role both as centres of research, but also as the training ground for future researchers. Evidence that has emerged over recent years suggests that Australian Universities are becoming the weak link in the Australian agricultural innovation system, and without significant change, the situation appears likely to get worse rather than better.

Annual enrollments in University agriculture courses have declined rapidly in Australia over the past decade, as the following graph produced by the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture highlights.

Even though reports indicate there has in fact been a growth in enrollments in agricultural courses in 2013, the decline in student enrollments that has occurred over the past decade has raised serious questions about the viability of University agricultural faculties as teaching and research institutions. 

Universities in Australia need to generate fees from students to remain viable. For agricultural faculties, the lack of students means that less fees are generated, and agricultural courses become expensive to run because staff still need to be paid, irrespective of whether they are fronting classes of twenty or one hundred and twenty students. On top of the staff costs, agricultural courses require laboratories and field stations (greatly adding to costs) and do not attract many full-fee paying international students. Contrast that with say, a Commerce course that attracts hundreds of student enrollments, many of them from overseas, and requires no more facilities than a lecture hall and a few tutorial rooms, and you begin to understand why Deans and Vice Chancellors are reluctant to give extra resources to agriculture faculties.

A lack of resources and staff in turn makes it more difficult for agricultural faculties to maintain research capacity, and to compete for research grants. Inevitably, the smaller University agriculture faculties need to join with others to successfully compete for research funding, which adds costs and reduces the efficiency of a project. 

This also becomes a vicious cycle, because of the way that the research activities of Australian Universities are assessed by the Australian Government. Under the Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) arrangements which are used as part of the assessment for future research funding, one of the main criteria used to assess research outputs is the number of publications that are produced, with international publications receiving higher scores that local publications. As an example, a research paper on climate change published in an international journal such as Nature might get 15 points, whereas a paper on pesticide resistance in crops published in an Australian agricultural journal might only get 2 points.This highlights that the incentive is to strongly focus on research that has the potential for an international publication, rather than research into an issue that may be a pressing problem for Australian farmers.

What is completely missing from the way University research is assessed in Australia is any measure of the actual impact of that research on the industry sector.

But the problems for University agricultural researchers don't stop there. Most of the industry funding that is available from the rural research and development corporations is only for short-term projects - typically three years - which provided only very limited security of employment for researchers. In fact, some of the most widely respected agricultural researchers at Australian Universities have never had secure tenure - they have to build their careers based on only ever having 2-3 years of funding available.

A further challenge for University agricultural researchers is that the 'system' (which reward international publications and time spent teaching students) discourages researchers from spending time interacting with farmers and the agriculture sector. The end result is that University researchers are increasingly remote from the sector they are aiming to service, and this has two implications. One is it creates a greater risk that research may not be relevant to the sector, but the second is that it means the farm sector does not identify with or appreciate University researchers, and will be less likely to support them politically when they face funding cuts.

This all points to a need for some major changes to the 'system' for University agricultural research in Australia, with a revamp of the "Excellence in Research Australia" system in order to put much greater emphasis on industry impacts. Researchers should also have much stronger incentives to spend time engaging with industry, and have available longer-term and larger-scale projects that provide better opportunities for advancement and more secure tenure. Getting changes like this implemented in the University system will take a lot of time and effort, and unfortunately it is not immediately obvious who will champion such changes.

Graeme Martin commented on 26-Aug-2013 06:23 PM
A very succinct and accurate summary of the situation, Mick. I can supply real examples of every issue raised.
Graeme Martin, UWA Institute of Agriculture, University of WA
Peter White commented on 26-Aug-2013 08:01 PM
Maybe part of the issue is about discovering and delivering value.

Farmers and other people in the agricultural industries are held accountable for delivering value. They have to work out what is of value to their customers and then work out ways to deliver that value profitably. If they can't then they go out of business.

Too many of us in research don’t focus on these things. We just have faith in the intrinsic value of research. But, unfortunately, it seems like governments, funders and prospective students don’t see as much value in it for them anymore. We need to spend more time discovering where the value is to our clients and then work out way to deliver that to people who are willing to pay.

Clearly not a very easy thing to do. We could maybe learn a few things from the Lean Startup Movement.
Jim Pratley commented on 28-Aug-2013 10:18 AM
Mick, I can’t let the blog go through to the keeper. I think it would have been better to consider what value the university sector has (or we would like it to have) rather than just comment on what is wrong with them. Some matters were not correct and need to be corrected. For the record:
1. Yes, universities have been in decline for 20 years. It has not been helped by data categorisation in Canberra which continues to distort, nor by the lack of interest by industry in education per se and tertiary education in particular
2. Universities do far more agricultural research than they are given credit for – around 25% in fact and rising in proportion. State agencies have ‘consolidated’ from over 50% to around 30% of the research over the last decade or so. Universities also train the next researchers.
3. The throw-away line that universities only chase the ERA agenda is not correct. In many cases the research they do depends on the source of funds and most rely on RDC funding. Certainly no university makes a motza out of ARC funds. Yes universities play the ERA game as there is money in that but to say that they don’t deliver to RDCs is questionable. Publishing papers and delivering to industry are not mutually exclusive.
4. Publications are important within universities. Agriculture has to compete with other disciplines because that is how the system operates. It is also true that we publish in overseas journals but that is forced on us somewhat because CSIRO journals are now “international” and wont publish anything that relates “regionally” so they no longer have the value to Australian agriculture they once had. Maybe that should be fixed.
5. One of the concerns of R&D is the focus on short term fixes. So where is the next breakthrough going to come from if there is no blue sky, serendipity, strategic - universities do some of that.
6. Universities get no funding for extension (and they do quite a lot) so any they do is on the back of the staff members involved.
7. I have strong concerns for the future of agricultural R&D as it is now funded. Soft short-term funding with no interest by funders in the stability of researchers. These are people with families and mortgages but that is of no concern as the bureaucracy of research funding is now out of control.

For some reason the universities are being blamed for the lack of ag students. The reality is that universities are businesses these days and if no one wants a particular course then the university will shut it down and move on to the next one where there is student demand. So it is not the university sector which needs agriculture, it is the industry which needs and presumably benefits from graduates. So unless the industry focuses on building image, promoting careers etc then it is the industry’s problem. That said it has been the university sector that has raised the profile of the whole education debate to the extent that the politicians of all persuasions and jurisdictions are now attuned to the issue. If the universities had not done the homework then the issue would be still dormant.
Mick Keogh commented on 28-Aug-2013 10:39 AM
Just to clarify, the intent is not to 'blame' the University agricultural faculties, as their activities are determined by the system within which they operate. It seems the need to change incentive systems, to get University staff involved in (and paid for) extension activities, to carry out more long-term blue-sky research and to provide more secure tenure for researchers is agreed, but the question remains: whose role is it to get these changes implemented?

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