The Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) is driving some interesting behaviour:
Yesterday, in a case of déjà vu, the University of South Australia confirmed it had acquired senior researchers and support staff from the University of Technology Sydney’s Centre for Choice. UniSA had even bought real estate in North Sydney to accommodate it’s new Institute for Choice. Two years ago, Central Queensland University, chequebook in hand, acquired UniSA’s entire team of sleep researchers – and purchased real estate so they could stay in Adelaide.
ACU’s move on the UWS centre comes not long after it acquired a swag of exercise and sports scientists from RMIT last year, headed by high-profile researcher John Hawley.
Further south, Charles Sturt took over the University of Canberra’s Centre for Customs and Excise Studies last year.
Poaching staff for the sole purpose of improving their own product offerings. So what you say? That is how the market is supposed to work. But I’m not convinced. What is happening is that universities are out poaching staff for the purpose of improving how the government ranks universities. Not quite the same thing as improving your product offering.
But let’s deal with the bleating first:
“When you lose a group which you have invested significantly in over a long period of time, you have been anticipating their performance in the ERA assessment. I don’t think churning is in the Australian research sector’s best interests. We should be seeking to build our research efforts, but not by poaching.”
That is just tough – get over it. Those with the bigger cheque-books get to buy the people they want.
I actually see two problems. First, as I have argued elsewhere, the ERA has some problems:
The reality is that the ERA report results rely on some courageous assumptions. First, that government (or its agencies) can define quality. Second, that government (or its agencies) can measure quality. Third, that quality can be sufficiently represented in a single number between 1 and 5.
As I have demonstrated in the case of Applied Economics research the government (or its agencies) isn’t very good at that sort of thing. If they were to rely on the ERA ranking for Applied Economics universities might end up poaching the wrong people. To be blunt, however, that is a risk university management takes along with every organisation that decides to buy talent as opposed to develop its own talent.
The second problem relates to the underlying business case for poaching staff on the basis of ERA rankings. Where is the money to pay for it all coming from? The government has yet to put any new money on the table. As it is, any new money that is put on the table is going to be captured by the researchers themselves – either as increased salary, or in the newly rented accommodation to house them far away from their home institutions, and other staff perks and emoluments. Right now that money is being diverted from other areas within the universities themselves. Either by reducing service quality to existing students or by taking increased numbers of students and (possibly) reducing service quality to future employees or imposing a higher burden on (future) taxpayers when HECS loans cannot be repaid.
I could be wrong – paying customers may well be attracted to those universities that score highly in the ERA rankings. I doubt it though. I suspect the old-fashioned issues of employment prospects post-graduation and the like will continue to dominate student decision making. Don’t get me wrong – research is part of that story, but not enough to justify the churning and poaching that we’re seeing. Right now there is a research-bubble in the university sector.