Updated 8 January 2021
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Dr Hazel Ferguson
Social Policy Section
Australian universities are required to undertake research,
and offer Masters and Doctoral research degrees, in at least three broad fields,
as a condition of registration.
The Australian Government emphasises the importance of
university research performance through assessments of quality and engagement and
impact. A wide range of international rankings based largely on research
performance, such as the Times
Higher Education World University Rankings and QS
World University Rankings, also confer academic prestige on highly ranked
Research performance is also often a basis for academic
hiring and promotion, acting as an incentive (beyond inherent motivation) for
individual researchers to maintain research activity.
This quick guide explains how Australian universities
resource research activities. Based on key Australian Government data, it sets
out the major sources and distribution of university research funding.
Australian universities fund research activities from:
- the performance-based research block grants
(RBGs) administered by the Department of Education, Skills and Employment
(DESE), made up of the Research
Training Program and the Research
- Australian nationally competitive grants, mainly from the National Health and Medical
Research Council (NHMRC) and the Australian
Research Council (ARC); but also from other national funding bodies, such
as the Medical
Research Future Fund
- Australian Government funding to support industry engagement,
such as the Cooperative
Research Centre (CRC) Program, administered by the Department of Industry,
Science, Energy and Resources (DISER), which supports industry-led
collaborations with researchers and other groups
- Australian Government research infrastructure funding programs,
such as the DESE-administered National
Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, or the ARC-administered Linkage
Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities scheme
other public sector research funding that is not awarded on a
nationally competitive basis—for example, National Institutes
Program grants administered by DESE, or state and local government grants
and direct contributions to projects
student fees—a recent
study undertaken for DESE found 90 per cent of funding for a Commonwealth
supported place is spent on teaching, with the remainder cross-subsidising
other functions, including research
income from research commissioned by industry and private
not-for-profit organisations, such as charities and foundations and
- other sources such as philanthropic donations, endowments, and
Higher education research
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) release Research
and Experimental Development, Higher Education Organisations, Australia
(formerly cat. no. 8111.0) publishes higher education expenditure on research
and development (HERD). The latest issue, released on 20 May
2020, is based on survey data about research and development (R&D)
performed by Australian higher education organisations during the 2018 calendar
year. Although the data does not provide program-level detail to match the
funding sources outlined above, it does include information about higher
education organisations’ R&D expenditure by source of funds, type of
activity, and field of research.
Source of funds
The two main sources of funds for HERD in 2018 were general
university funds ($6,823 million, or 56 per cent of HERD) and
Australian Government competitive grants ($1,700 million, or 14 per cent
of HERD). As shown in Table 1, these were also the two main sources identified
in each survey since 2008.
Table 1: source of funds for higher
education R&D expenditure, 2008–18 ($ million)
|General university funds
|Australian competitive funds
| Commonwealth schemes
| Other schemes
|Other Commonwealth government
|State and local government
|Donations, bequests and foundations
Sources: Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Research and Experimental Development, Higher Education
Organisations, Australia, ABS,
Canberra, 2020, Table 1; Research and Experimental Development, Higher Education
Organisations, Australia, 2016, ABS, Canberra,
2018, Table 1; ABS, Research and Experimental Development, Higher Education
Organisations, Australia, 2014, ABS, Canberra,
2016, Table 1. Notes: Figures are not adjusted for inflation. Figures may not
sum due to rounding.
Expenditure by type of activity
In 2018, HERD comprised support for the following activities
(in order of greatest expenditure):
- 48.4 per cent ($5,884 million) for applied research—‘original
investigation undertaken in order to acquire new knowledge… directed primarily
towards a specific, practical aim or objective’
- 22.8 per cent ($2,769 million) for pure basic research—‘research
carried out for the advancement of knowledge, without seeking long-term
economic or social benefits or making any effort to apply the results to
practical problems or to transfer the results to sectors responsible for their
- 17.8 per cent ($2,167 million) for strategic basic research—‘experimental
and theoretical work undertaken to acquire new knowledge directed into
specified broad areas in the expectation of practical discoveries’
- 11.0 per cent ($1,338 million) for experimental development—‘
systematic work, drawing on knowledge gained from research and practical
experience and producing additional knowledge, which is directed to producing
new products or processes or to improving existing products or processes’.
Expenditure by field of research
Table 2 shows HERD by broad Field
of Research (FoR), arranged in descending order, for 2018. Almost one third
of expenditure was in the Medical and Health Sciences (30.6 per cent), followed
by Engineering (10.2 per cent). All other FoRs
received less than 10 per cent of total expenditure.
Table 2: higher education
expenditure on R&D, by Fields of Research, 2018 ($ million)
|Field of Research
||Percentage of total
|Medical and Health Sciences
|| 3 721.0
|| 1 245.1
|Studies in Human Society
|Agricultural and Veterinary Sciences
|Commerce, Management, Tourism and Services
|Information and Computing Sciences
|Psychology and Cognitive Sciences
|Language, Communication and Culture
|Built Environment and Design
|Law and Legal Studies
|History and Archaeology
|Studies in Creative Arts and Writing
|Philosophy and Religious Studies
ABS, Research and Experimental Development, Higher Education
Organisations, Australia, op. cit.
Australian Government funding for
The Australian Government
operates a ‘dual funding system’ for university research, made up of:
the DESE-administered RBGs to support the systemic costs of
research including research student stipends and tuition fee offsets; and the
indirect costs of competitive grants and
national competitive grants (predominantly through the ARC and
NHMRC) for particular research programs, projects or fellowships as approved by
the funding body based on academic peer review.
The House Standing Committee on Education, Employment and
into Funding Australia's Research (October 2018) found
widespread support for this structure among universities—notwithstanding
concerns about the efficiency of competitive grants application and
administration processes, and what some describe as a shortfall between RBG
funding and the indirect costs of government-funded research.
Australian Government expenditure
on university research
Information about Australian Government R&D expenditure
over time is available from the Science,
Research and Innovation (SRI) Budget Tables, published in the second half
of each year by DISER. These detail all Australian Government R&D
expenditure, including for university research.
Table 3 shows estimated expenses for key Australian
Government programs that fund university research.
Both the ARC and NHMRC fund some research outside the higher
education sector, meaning total funding to universities from these programs
will be lower than shown in Table 3. The SRI Budget Tables include a breakdown
of RBG, ARC and NHMRC funding for the higher education sector only, but this
breakdown does not provide forward estimates.
3: estimated expenses, key Australian Government programs funding higher
education research, 2015–16 to 2023–24 ($ million)
DISER, Science, Research and Innovation (SRI) Budget Tables, September 2019; Australian Government, Portfolio budget statements 2020–21: budget related
paper no. 1.4: Education, Skills and Employment Portfolio, pp. 57 and 147; Australian
Government, Portfolio budget statements 2019–20: budget related
paper no. 1.7: Health Portfolio,
Distribution of research income
from key Australian Government programs
Although all universities receive some Australian Government
research funding, the majority goes to the research-intensive Group of Eight (Go8) institutions: the
Australian National University, University of Adelaide, University of
Melbourne, Monash University, University of Queensland, University of Sydney, University
of New South Wales, and University of Western Australia.
According to calculations
based on time
series data from DESE, shown in Table 4, in 2019:
the Go8 universities received 66.6 per cent of cumulative funding
from the RBG, NHMRC and ARC grant income
- the Australian Technology
Network (ATN), made up of the University of South Australia, RMIT
University, the University of Technology Sydney, Curtin University, and Deakin
University, received 8.7 per cent of this income
- the Innovative Research
Universities (IRU), made up of Charles Darwin University, Flinders
University, Griffith University, James Cook University, La Trobe University,
Murdoch University, and Western Sydney University, received 8.5 per cent of
the Regional Universities
Network (RUN), made up of CQ University, Federation University, University
of Southern Queensland, Southern Cross University, the University of New
England, the University of the Sunshine Coast, and Charles Sturt University,
received 2.1 per cent of this income
- the remaining 15 universities (unaligned) collectively account
for the remaining 14.0 per cent of RBG, ARC and NHMRC income for 2019.
Because income data is
reported by calendar year, it does not match financial year expenses
information for Australian Government programs.
Table 4: RBG, ARC and NHMRC
research income by university affiliation, 2019 ($ million)
||Percentage of total
Source: Parliamentary Library
calculations using DESE, Consolidated Time Series Data.
Note: Totals may
not sum due to rounding.
- DISER publishes the Australian
Innovation System Monitor each year, covering the performance of
Australia’s R&D investment, including international comparisons and
reflections on policy directions and future challenges.
- The ARC publishes information about the outcomes of funding
rounds in its Selection
Outcome Report. A statistical breakdown for approved proposals in each
recent scheme round is also available via the ARC
Grants Search website.
- The NHMRC publishes outcomes
of funding rounds data and research
- DESE compiles the Finance
Publication covering annual financial performance, financial position and
cash flows for universities, derived from institutions’ financial statements.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
and Development Statistics provide information about resources devoted to
R&D for OECD member countries and seven non-member economies. The database
covers gross domestic expenditure on R&D by sector and source of funds.
- The peak body for Australian universities is Universities Australia
(UA). UA publishes a range of policy analysis and sector views, including
information about university R&D. UA’s latest analysis of Australian
Government funding for university research is included in its 2020–21
Pre-Budget Submission (pp. 7–12).
Standards Framework (Threshold Standards) 2015, Part B1.2.3. Under the
Threshold Standards, Australian higher education providers that are not
registered as universities are not required to conduct research.
For example, see: Australian National University (ANU), ‘Procedure: Academic
promotion’, ANU website; University of Sunshine Coast (USC), ‘Academic
Promotion – Procedures’, USC website, accessed 6 October 2020.
As defined in ABS, ANZSRC
- Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification, 2020,
ABS, Canberra, 2020.
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