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August 16th 2016 print

James Allan

If Our Universities Ran the Olympics…

Our tertiary institutions regard the getting of grants as the hallmark of achievement, rating and promoting academics for the sums they extract from taxpayers, rather than the quality of the research it underwrites. If Usain Bolt could teach as well as he runs, he'd be rated a non-performer

oz money IIAustralian universities are over-centralised, with top-down decision making so extensive it mimics how decisions were made at General Motors in the 1950s, or perhaps how they were made in the former East Germany. There are massively — and I do mean massively — too many employees who neither teach or publish but who are over-paid administrators.   And if you believe any of the guff you hear in those world rankings of universities, all of it basically meaningless mush, then let me advise you not to invest money with the Nigerian oil minister’s daughter, such is your credulity.

But watching some of the Olympics has got me thinking about another one of the core problems with Australian universities.  This is its obsession with grant-getting. This country’s universities are obsessed with grants and grant-getting.  This is the science model imposed on the rest of the university.  And believe me, to get promoted you need to find someone to give you money to do your research, with the most kudos coming to you if it’s the ARC (Australian Research Council) – meaning the money comes from the taxpayer.  Now let’s be blunt.  If you’re in history, most parts of law, the Arts, much of Business, and big chunks of the rest of the university you can publish in top journals without soliciting a cent of grant money.  Indeed spending time trying to get grants is largely wasted time, were it not demanded by university bureaucrats.  And if you don’t do it, well then you will never be promoted.  The universities have huge grant-getting bureaucracies that need to be fed.

Here is an example I have used various times:  Take two academics in the same area who have published in the exact same top-line, peer-reviewed international journals. Academic A gets no grants.  He is, in effect, doing his research on his salary without additional taxpayer monies.  Academic B, by contrast, gets huge amounts of grant money (providing work for all sorts of university bureaucrats).  She produces not a jot more than Academic A.  The outputs – the things that ultimately matter – are the same.  So how do they fare, comparatively speaking?  Academic B will be feted and promoted.  Academic A will never, ever get a promotion and may be fired. This is true across Australia.  It is bonkers.

Philippa Martyr: Taken For Granted


Universities treat inputs (grant money to allow research to be done) as outputs (what is produced).  In fact they care more about the input grants.  It is exactly analogous to you choosing to buy your car based on which car company got the most taxpayer support, the most subsidies, the most grants.  That is your proxy for excellence.  Bonkers, right?  (Well, I suppose that actually explains how we buy submarines in this country, but I digress.)  Worse, no academic outside Australia judges you based on your grant-getting prowess.  They want to know what you’ve written, and where.  Full stop.  It unfortunately goes without saying that the Liberals have done nothing about this insanity. And they could fix it without having to pass a bill through the Senate.  This would be a Lambie-free zone.

And notice that I have been careful not to say a thing about the left-leaning nature of ARC grants in the social sciences.  If you favour stopping the boats, or Bjorn Lomborg’s responses to carbon dioxide reduction, or a successful plebiscite before changing the definition of marriage, you can guess your chances of getting ARC money.  It rhymes with a Roman Emperor.  The fifth one.  The pyromaniac.

And that brings me to the Olympics, only this will be an Australian university version of the Olympics.

100 Metre Dash

Commentator One:  Gee, Bill, that runner from Luxembourg did a great job scooping up sports funding.  Did you know that his 321-page grant application for training support came back without any objections from reviewers?  It was magnificent.  Truly a credit to the 100 metres.

Commentator Two Nancy, you could not be more right.  It was a gold medal performance.  Sure, he finished the race in 13.5 seconds.  But the funding he pulled in was amazing.

Commentator One:  It’s all about results at the Olympics Bill.  You either deliver or you don’t.  And wasn’t his form perfect?

Commentator Two:  I think you mean ‘forms’ Nancy?  And his forms were perfect. No typos.  The big percentage cuts taken off the top by his institution were flawless.  It’s hard to see anyone beating him anytime soon.

Commentator One:  Bill, what do you make of the guy from Jamaica?

Commentator Two:  Nancy, he didn’t receive a single grant.  He has no future in this game.  Of course, we all like it when something comes of the funding you apply for.  But that’s not what’s really important here.  What matters are results.  And that means, ‘How much grant money did you get?’.  For the Jamaican, the facts speak for themselves.  He’s a 9.8 second bust.

Commentator One:  Can’t argue with that, Bill.  And now we’ll send you over to the pool where some of our Australian athletes have taken home hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer support.

Commentator Two:   They’re already champions Nancy.  And they have promising careers ahead of them in one of Australia’s universities.

Comments [8]

  1. pgang says:

    I don’t understand the argument here. If Professor A produces the same output as Professor B, but Prof A pulls in money for the business also, then Prof A will naturally be the favourite.

  2. LBLoveday says:

    Not directly a response to Mr. Allan, but his tale of grants and Olympics took my thoughts back to mid-1984 when I was using Nautilus weight machines at the Adelaide Sports Sciences Clinic, and a gawky 15 year old girl walked in, looked around and asked the attendant to show her how to use the overhead press; he showed her and left her to struggle on by herself, no idea of appropriate weight, good form, reps…. She tried a couple of other machines by herself after watching how others used them then left. I seemed to be the only person who knew who she was.

    A month or two later, the girl, Anna McVann, made the finals in the Olympics 200m, 400m and 800m individual freestyle and 100m freestyle relay. I know the East German and Russian amazons were not there, but plenty were.

    How times have changed!

  3. Salome says:

    My experience of grants in the humanities is that they provide money either to hire someone else to do the groundwork in the research, or to hire someone to do the grantee’s teaching while the grantee goes off on junkets. Some grant money goes to things such as travel expenses, but a lot goes to either freeing up time or paying someone to do large portions of the work. That means either that academics don’t actually do a most of their research, or that they don’t teach–the old model of academics who both taught and did their own research was, I think, a superior one.

  4. Alistair says:

    In case anyone doubts the general thesis – I was invited to attend a series of talks given by a number of applicants to a senior lecturing position at major Australian University. One of the applicants was a Russian who had a brillaint research topic but could hardly speak any English. I asked the Professor who was running the interviews what weight he would give to the fact that the applicant would not be able to communicate with his students. “None whatsoever” he replied. “There is only one candidate here, the Canadian. He has $5 million of grant money he brings with him. I can hire 25 staff with that.” The grant money was some international global warming funding. The university suddenly became very pro-global warming, and the Canadian stayed until he got a better offer elsewhere and then I suppose he took his funding off with him.
    This is how science is done in Australia these days.

  5. Jody says:

    That’s one hellova big “IF”.

  6. DRW says:

    Universities should offer degrees in Farnarkling instead of disguising them as Gender Studies, Climate Change etc.