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To fix agricultural innovation, shut down G8 university agriculture faculties

- Sunday, March 20, 2016

There is widespread recognition that all is not well with the agricultural innovation system in Australia, with agricultural productivity growth essentially stalling since 1997, and agricultural research and development funding in free-fall as state governments in particular use any excuse to shut down facilities and remove resources. It might seem illogical, but one way to improve the performance of the Australian agricultural innovation system may actually be to shut down agricultural faculties and schools in Australia's major universities.

The agricultural innovation system in Australia includes public and private sector researchers, extension agents and farm advisors, farmers, the Australian and State Governments, the CSIRO and the Rural Research and Development Corporations (RDCs). The public sector research groups that are in many ways the 'engine' of the system include the sixteen universities with agriculture-related research and teaching facilities, the CSIRO Agriculture flagship, and the state Department of Primary Industries research and development divisions.

The universities play a very important role in the system by employing researchers and hosting research facilities, as well as educating and training undergraduate and post-graduate students. However, changes that have occurred in the university sector over the past decade - especially for those universities such as Sydney and Melbourne that are in what is called the "Group of eight" universities - mean that agriculture no longer suits their business model. As a result, their agriculture faculties and schools are suffering deaths by a thousand cuts, and are becoming less and less relevant to the future interests of the agriculture sector in Australia.

The reason for this was spelled out by Michael Spence, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney, in a recent opinion piece published in the Australian Newspaper. The business model of the G8 universities is now critically dependent on the revenue generated by overseas students to fund continued growth, with the University of Sydney earning in excess of $370 million from overseas students per annum, and a number of the G8 universities earning up to one third of their total revenue from overseas student fees. 

To continue attracting overseas students, universities need to achieve high rankings in international university ranking systems, as Michael Spence explained;

... Parents overseas use university world rankings to choose a student destination. Our world rankings are judged predominantly on our research performance (and the Go8 has seven of its members in the world’s top 100). Lower rankings equals fewer high quality International students for Australia. Less or lesser quality research equals lower rankings.

What Michael Spence did not explain is that research rankings are based almost entirely on publication metrics, with papers published in international journals like Science or Nature achieving high scores. As a result, academics and post-graduate students are under increasing pressure to constantly produce publications, especially those that will be able to be published in international scientific journals. This means that university researchers are not researching issues that are of importance to industry, and hence Australian has the lowest 'innovation' score of any nation in the OECD, because university researchers have no incentive, and few opportunities to engage with industry. 

Under these settings, Australian agriculture loses out in multiple ways. Firstly, agriculture courses attract relatively low student numbers and are expensive to run because they need laboratories and research stations, compared to arts or business courses that attract thousands of overseas students and simply require a lecturer and a lecture theatre. Secondly, Australian agriculture is relative unique compared to international agriculture sectors, and hence the results of Australian agricultural research activities are unlikely to be of interest to international scientific publications. And thirdly, (but perhaps most significantly) Australian agriculture courses attract relative few undergraduate enrollments from overseas (again due to the uniqueness of agriculture systems here). 

The result is the continuing deterioration in both resources and research activities by agriculture faculties at major universities, with the constant restructuring and turmoil evident in the agriculture faculties of the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne being ample evidence of the disinterest of these institutions in a sector such as agriculture.

One solution may be to forget about agriculture in G8 universities, and instead to concentrate on developing viable agriculture faculties in perhaps seven or eight regional universities throughout Australia. These universities are not addicted to overseas student revenue, and are located in regional areas that would encourage closer collaboration with the agriculture sector. Importantly, by concentrating agricultural resources in a smaller number of institutions these agriculture faculties will have greater critical mass and 'matter' to the institutions that are hosting them. Consequently, they are much more likely to be sustainable over the longer term.

An added benefit is that these university faculties could be established as institutions with strong linkages to state government agriculture researchers, and provide a greater incentive for these state agencies to maintain resources and capacity, rather than the constant erosion of resources that is evident at present, especially in states like South Australia and Western Australia.

Of course, the G8 universities will indignantly resist the proposal, and protest that they really do care for their agriculture faculties, despite ample evidence to the contrary. And in the absence of these universities voluntarily withdrawing from agriculture, there is little prospect of any improvement to the current situation where too few resources are spread over too many universities, and all in decline.

While reluctant to call for government interference, perhaps this is a case where the heavy hand of government might be exactly what is needed to bring about a beneficial change. If the Australian Government, in conjunction with the RDCs, decided to preferentially allocate resources to a select group of regional universities, and asked state governments to join with their regional universities in developing proposals under a competitive process, the end result could be a substantial improvement on current arrangements. It could see the development of seven or eight strong and vibrant centres of agricultural research with strong industry links, operating in much the same manner as Land Grant universities do in the USA. These could be supported with a dedicated 'blue sky' long-term agriculture research fund carved out of the funding pool currently allocated to the Australian Research Council - of which agriculture is allocated virtually nothing - and RDC and state government funding.

While proposing a reduction in the number of Australian universities that host agriculture faculties might seem like a strange way to fix agricultural innovation, it could actually be the change that is needed to achieve a better long-term outcome.

The forthcoming edition of the Farm Policy Journal published by the Australian Farm Institute will contain a number of papers proposing different ways to fix the agricultural innovation system in Australia.

Peter Roberts commented on 21-Mar-2016 05:27 PM
The dichotomy created by the need to publish by universities and the need for on ground innovation by investment is nothing new. It is why GRDC have come under increasing criticsism by some of the university sector. However there are indications of change by some in the university sector by the recognition of research impact as a measure of effectiveness and a barometer that is increasingly used as to suitability for access to future funding from RDC's. Whether there is a more suitable model or whether individual universities accept that on ground change is the paramount driver is a moot point as investment organisations will only invest with those institutions that accept that innovation on ground is the driver.

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