Go8 Submission: Enhancing research outcomes from Australia’s regional, rural and remote universities

I write to advise the Go8’s interest in the ACOLA project currently underway at the request of the Department of Education – to better understand the opportunities and barriers to improving research potential and outcomes at universities in regional, rural and remote (RRR) universities.

While the Go8 was unfortunately not invited to make a submission, it is important that as Chief Executive I highlight for you the vital role and research impact that Go8 universities have in the RRR areas, including in collaboration with universities regarded under your project as RRR universities.

From the outset, I note with serious concern that the key universities under consideration in the ACOLA project are those with main campuses in the RRR areas. That is too narrow a focus for the project. While Go8 universities have their main campuses in major cities, they also have large campuses and medical and other schools in regional and rural areas (see map at Attachment A) which, with their size and the level of importance accorded to them do have as much, if not more impact, than ‘RRR universities’.

It is also concerning that the ACOLA project may focus on some ‘RRR universities’ aspects such as research funding, but without taking into account the significant effects that Go8 universities have in bolstering, supporting and enabling the national research fabric, and the collective Australian university sector, through its investments and its activities that have positive flow-on outcomes for ‘RRR universities’.

These outcomes could not be delivered without the Go8. They come from Go8 major research collaborations and contributions to RRR communities that are necessary to the viability of ‘RRR universities’.

Go8 universities should be understood as being as vital to RRR communities, including ‘RRR universities’, as industry and government are. It should also be understood that the Go8 has significant national economic impact that contributes to productivity and stability, including for RRR communities (see Attachment B).

Disregarding the impact of the Go8 – whether university endeavours or Go8 collaborations with other parts of the research sector – would be a major project omission for a range of reasons:

  • The Go8 has a significant footprint in the RRR areas, with campuses located in those areas, delivering education there, informed by the high-quality research the Go8 undertakes. Campuses such as:
    • The University of Melbourne’s Dookie campus, the largest farm campus in the southern hemisphere – which in its early years played an important role in the establishment of the Dookie township and by pioneering wine grape varieties since the 1870s
    • Monash University’s third largest campus, the Peninsula campus in Frankston, with 3500 students, which in 2018 signed a MoU with Peninsula Health to establish the Academic Centre for new clinical academic groups conducting research into dementia, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes[1].
    • The University of Western Australia’s Albany campus which works with surrounding communities to enable better management of natural resources
    • The University of Queensland’s Gatton campus which enables teaching and research in agriculture, animals, veterinary science and the environment
  • Retention rates for regional, remote and Indigenous students in Go8 universities are significantly higher than the national average. Once they complete their studies, many of our graduates return to rural areas to generate wealth and contribute to the well-being of their communities.
  • Go8 universities are dominant in research fields that are important in regional and remote Australia. The Go8 delivers research that solves real-world problems in regional, rural and remote areas, with deep partnerships with industries and communities.
    • It is the quality of the Go8’s research, not only its breadth and volume, that characterises its impact on communities with 99.4 per cent of the Go8’s research assessed by Government as world class or above[2]. This includes in:
      • Environmental Sciences – all Go8 universities are above or well above world standard
      • Resources Engineering and Extractive Metallurgy – five Go8 universities are world standard or above
      • Earth Sciences – all Go8 universities are above or well above world standard
      • Soil Sciences – four Go8 universities are well above world standard with one other above world standard
      • Agriculture and veterinary sciences – six Go8 universities are above or well above world standard
    • Go8 research has resulted in many significant results for RRR communities, such as:
      • improved mining and resource extraction techniques
      • advances in agriculture such as to developing wheat varieties more resilient to weather variations and salt tolerant chickpea crops as well as developing tools to guide optimal land use
      • better prediction and better preparedness for extreme weather, seasonal changes and other weather variances
      • sustainability of fisheries including in Queensland through improved modelling to maximise sustainable yield while reducing overfishing risk
      • reduction of dengue fever in Townsville and Cairns from work on dengue resistance, with Far North Queensland recently declared fever free for the first time in more than a century[3]
  • Go8 collaborations with those termed RRR universities in ACOLA’s discussion paper are varied and significant, with the Go8 adding to and strengthening these collaborations through academic expertise, infrastructure provision or simply co-investment whether in-kind or cash. These include through:
    • Partnering in ARC Centres of Excellence such as the ARC CoE in Coral Reef Studies[4]and the ARC CoE for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage[5], the new CoE for Plant Success in Nature and Agriculture[6]
    • Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) for example for Honey Bee Products[7], Cybersecurity[8], Optimising Resource Extraction[9], Rail Manufacturing[10], Bushfires and Natural Hazards[11], for Developing Northern Australia[12], Lowitja Institute Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health[13]
  • While the location of national research infrastructure may be contended from time to time, for example as the ACOLA discussion paper (p.4) notes, quoting the Innovative Research Universities (IRU) group, the reality is that:
    • Such national research infrastructure benefits RRR universities, their communities and the nation through the research it supports including directly in those areas, such as the advanced research network run by AARNet Pty Ltd on behalf of the universities which extends well into RRR areas and is partly underwritten by Go8 contribution, and national facilities led by Go8 universities[14]
    • The RRR universities are often key partners or contributors to the establishment, ongoing development and running of such facilities
  • In a similar way as CSIRO, Go8 universities bring extensive resources to build on Government investment, collaborative capacity and expertise to ensure the facilities are leading edge, robustly supported, and meet their remit. It could be argued that many national research infrastructure facilities endured periods of funding uncertainty yet survived in a way that may not have been possible if led by RRR universities. I also wish to rectify an issue within ACOLA’s discussion paper (p.3) namely a statement that universities in RRR areas receive proportionally more funding from industry sources than Go8 universities.

In fact, the latest 2017 figures state:

  • Go8 universities capture 57 per cent of all industry income from Australian and international for-profit organisations, Australian contracts, international government own purpose and CRC private industry income. This omits not-for-profit and philanthropy income[15].

I look forward to having the opportunity to discuss further or clarify any aspects above.

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