Updated 17 February 2022
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Dr Hazel Ferguson
Social Policy Section
Australian universities are required to
undertake research, and offer Doctoral research degrees, as a condition of
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 (MRFF)
- Australian Government funding to support industry engagement,
such DESE-administered programs for university-led collaborations, including Australia’s
Economic Accelerator, and Department
of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources (DISER)-administered programs
for industry-led collaborations, including the Cooperative
Research Centre (CRC) Program
- Australian Government research infrastructure funding programs,
such as the DESE-administered National
Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, and 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 Institute Program funding
(administered by DESE) to support the Australian
National University, and state and local government grants and
direct contributions to research projects
- student fees—the contribution of student fees is currently
unclear due to COVID-19-related declines in revenue from overseas student fees
(which previously accounted for an estimated
27% of university research expenditure) and Job-ready Graduates Package changes
to the Commonwealth
Grant Scheme (10% of which was previously
estimated to be spent on non-teaching functions, including research)
- income from research commissioned by industry and private
not-for-profit organisations, such as charities and foundations
- 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
publishes higher education expenditure on research and development
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% of HERD) and Australian Government competitive
grants ($1,700 million, or 14% of HERD). As shown in Table 1, these were also
the two main sources identified in each survey since 2008.
Table 1: source of funds for higher
education R&D expenditure, 2008–18 ($ million)
and local government
bequests and foundations
Sources: Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Research and Experimental Development, Higher Education
Organisations, Australia (Canberra:
ABS, 2020, Table 1); ABS, Research and Experimental Development, Higher Education
Organisations, Australia, 2016 (Canberra: ABS,
2018, Table 1); ABS, Research and Experimental Development, Higher Education
Organisations, Australia, 2014 (Canberra: ABS,
2016, Table 1).
Notes: Figures are not adjusted for inflation. Figures may not sum due to
Expenditure by type of activity
In 2018, HERD comprised support for the following activities
(in order of greatest expenditure):
- 48.4% ($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% ($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 application’
- 17.8% ($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% ($1,338 million) for experimental development—‘systematic
work, drawing on knowledge gained from research and practical experience and
producing additional knowledge, which is directed to producing new products or
processes or to improving existing products or processes’.
Expenditure by field of research
Table 2 shows HERD by broad Field
of Research (FoR), arranged in descending order, for 2018. Almost one third
of expenditure was in the Medical and Health Sciences (30.6%), followed by Engineering (10.2%). All other FoRs received less
than 10% of total expenditure.
Table 2: higher education
expenditure on R&D, by Fields of Research, 2018 ($ million)
||Percentage of total
and Health Sciences
in Human Society
and Veterinary Sciences
Management, Tourism and Services
and Computing Sciences
and Cognitive Sciences
Communication and Culture
Environment and Design
and Legal Studies
in Creative Arts and Writing
and Religious Studies
Source: ABS, Research and Experimental Development, Higher Education
Australian Government funding for
The central feature of
Australian Government funding for university research is a ‘dual funding
system’, 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
- 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 described 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.
The ARC, NHMRC, and MRFF 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 and has not been used
Table 3: estimated
expenses, key Australian Government programs funding higher education research,
2015–16 to 2024–25 ($ million)
|ARC competitive grants
|NHMRC competitive grants
Parliamentary Library calculations and DISER, Science, Research and Innovation (SRI) Budget Tables, December 2021, R&D Table.
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 2020:
- the Go8 universities received 67.2% of cumulative funding from
RBG, NHMRC, ARC, and MRFF 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 8.8% 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 8.2% of this income
- 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 2.0% of this income
- the remaining 15 universities (unaligned) collectively accounted
for the remaining 13.8% of RBG, ARC, NHMRC and MRFF income for 2020.
For these calculations, University of Canberra (now IRU) and
The University of Newcastle (now ATN) have been counted as unaligned,
consistent with their affiliations in 2020. Avondale University, which became
a university in 2021, is not included.
Because income data is reported by calendar year, it does
not match financial year expenses information for Australian Government
Table 4: RBG, ARC, NHMRC and MRFF
research income by university affiliation, 2020 ($ million)
Source: Parliamentary Library
calculations using DESE, Research Block Grants Allocations and Research Income Time Series, Last modified 17 December 2021.
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
- The MRFF publishes grant
- 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) Research
and Development Statistics provide information about resources devoted to
R&D for OECD member countries and seven non-member economies. The database includes
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 2022–23
Pre-Budget Submission (pp. 18–23).
Standards Framework (Threshold Standards) 2021, Part B1.3.6 and B1.3.16–19.
Under the Threshold Standards, Australian higher education providers that are
not registered as Australian universities are not required to conduct research.
For example, see: ‘Procedure: Academic
promotion’, Australian National University (ANU); ‘Academic
Promotion – Procedures’, University of Sunshine Coast (USC), accessed 14
As defined in ABS, ANZSRC
- Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification, 2020
(Canberra: ABS, 2020).
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