Research bubble

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.

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16 Responses to Research bubble

  1. stackja

    Applied Economics? Is that like political Economics or social Economics? Sound like socialism!

  2. Squirrel

    One of the more interesting aspects of this is that, if we didn’t have the Australian Research Council, or something like it (with research funds just divvied up between institutions according to a relatively simple formula) , the activities which you have described would be pointed to as compelling evidence of the need for national co-ordination to avoid “duplication, waste, and bidding-up in the use of scarce resources etc. etc.”

    Maybe the problems would be that much worse if the ARC didn’t exist, or had a somewhat less detailed role – with somewhat smalling staffing and running costs…… – but you have to wonder (I suppose, though, there has to be something for a federal Education Minister to do).

  3. Andrew

    I hear UNSW is secretly trying to solicit bids for Chris Turkey

  4. 2dogs

    There is a lack of what auditors call “separation of duties” in academic research, and this leads to far to much academic fraud.

    The general model should be:

    1. Public submissions as to which data sets might be valuable;
    2. Public tendering by universities and other research bodies for the work of collating those data sets which are funded;
    3. Compiled data sets to be publicly available for analysis by anyone except the collator.

    Some research won’t fit this model, e.g. applied science research aimed producing a specific technology, but it will fit the vast majority of university research.

  5. Aliice

    Come oin Sinc

    You know and I know what happens in universities

    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.

    Yes well I just laugh at this comment dont I? Because it has been happening for ten years. The trough of pig food got bigger and fatter for prize researchers, many of whom cant teach a class to save themselves, and the students cant save themselves if they do teach. Then there comes a “oh god we must find cost savings in the department” and students and uni teachers once again carry the load for some of these prize catches. The uni trough is as fat as it ever was and populated by researcher pigs (getting their acommodation and flights paid etc) who do extraordinarily well out of this eltist system whilst the student cash cows and cheap teachers keep getting screwed.

    Tell me has Edlestein or other football team owners considered a stable of uni researchers yet? Do they need velvet chairs and maybe Dexxies in addition to the large salaries and bemefits whilst they swam about objecting to teaching students?

    The system sucks. You know it Sinc. I know it.

  6. Aliice

    Stackja

    Applied Economics? Is that like political Economics or social Economics? Sound like socialism!

    No its not socialism. Its the economics you teach when the students arent good enough to handle the maths of real micro or macro (not that the maths necessarily explains the real world anyway) or an economics major and yes if they were to apply ERA rankings to unis that increasingly teach “applied economics” as a base well they could get idelogical talkfest type people pushing agendas without any substance. Sinc is right.

    Sinc is also making the point that students who want a good learning experience are not necessarily better off in high ranking ERA universities (where the arrogance of some researchers provides a shitty learning experience for students – been there and seen it). Good researchers do not necessarily want to teach and nor do they necessarily make good teachers. There are no incentives for good uni teachers or for students but plenty of incentives for those climbing the research ladder (and dont be fooled – a lot of acceptable research in journals is also contributing to a plethora of mindboggling and mindnumbing trivia).

  7. stackja

    Aliice
    #1173477, posted on January 31, 2014 at 7:46 pm
    Stackja
    Applied Economics? Is that like political Economics or social Economics? Sound like socialism!
    No its not socialism. Its the economics you teach when the students arent good enough to handle the maths of real micro or macro (not that the maths necessarily explains the real world anyway) or an economics major and yes if they were to apply ERA rankings to unis that increasingly teach “applied economics” as a base well they could get idelogical talkfest type people pushing agendas without any substance. Sinc is right.

    students Me arent good enough to handle the maths. I will always bow to the good maths people.

  8. Aliice

    Basically applied economics is a talkfest Stackja, which is Ok if the teacher knows a bit of real economics BUT if they dont – they make up the talkfest to suit their idelogical view of the world which I think is what Sinc is hinting at with ERA rankings. You could get some biased people talkfesting away.

  9. Dan

    Better contracts? Wouldn’t you rather your researchers go on secondment that just piss off entirely?

  10. sdfc

    Macro and maths are in no way synonymous.

  11. sabrina

    Re poaching of units by one university from another – I note COPS moved from Monash to Victoria University.

    On the topic of the thread – the ERA exercise is abused by university management for little benefit to the society at large.
    It is easy to blame the academics. To get tenure and maintain their job, many have to run after a 3-year ARC project for a sum that consultants employed by governments or industries earn in three to six months. Many established professors work as consultants while maintaining their university jobs while teaching very little or none.

    This type of problem is endemic at every levels, not just in the universities. Consultants employed by governments or industries earn in three months what academics run after the ARC to get in a three year project.

  12. Rabz

    At the risk of appearing to state the bleeding obvious – “Government” and “Quality” are mutually exclusive concepts.

  13. Tel

    Come now Sinclair, anything can be productized.

    Just make sure your research venture has plenty of tame journalists involved, a twitter feed, a facebook page, a couple of interviews on the ABC, a bunch of corporate sponsors who think it will boost their profile… then with all that in place it’s off to do research in a Russian ship at the South Pole.

    What is government buying when they sponsor research? Of course they are buying opinions, and the most valuable opinions are the ones that influence the greatest number of people. Researchers are smart people, they figure this out.

  14. Michael Burke

    Whenever I read or hear the word “excellence” as in Excellence in Research Australia or any similar context, I just know that I will be overwhelmed by a flood of pure drivel. It’s time the word was shunned as the pure intellectual pornography that it has become since adopted by the chattering classes.

  15. sabrina

    Alice and Tel – bothof you are right in what you wrote.
    In addition, sponsored research is mostly biased, more so for the ones sponsored by industry in my view.
    In case of industry sponsored research, at least there is accountability; for government sponsored ones, that accountability is less. Wild exaggeration by Tim flannery and others is one prime example.

  16. James Hargrave

    ‘Maybe the problems would be that much worse if the ARC didn’t exist, or had a somewhat less detailed role.’

    Absolutely the reverse. You might get just as satisfactory an outcome by replacing the ARC with a pokie machine. It is, in fact, so grimly over prescriptive, that people who encounter it from strange places such as Canada, the UK and NZ, not to mention those who might be more attuned to its ways – from the former communist bloc or the old USSR itself – find it beyond anything in their experience: their own research councils are so much easier to deal with (I have read drafts and final submissions here and for several countries abroad). The sheer amount of time applicants waste concocting applications, and some universities demand that everyone apply annually if they don’t have an ARC grant, irrespective of their own preferences and needs; then the further huge costs in time and effort wasted as applications grind through the universities’ own layers of vetting, compliance, homogenisation (so most read as boring as hell) – lots of people employed full-time in make-work jobs and plenty of others using up time better spent watching paint dry… all to achieve, to a great extent, distribution of public funds to the usual suspects or to complete moonshine (well, certainly in the arts).

    Poaching of staff or even of the retired/adjuncts, so that their publications could be used was a well-honed technique in the UK in the 1990s as this bizarre regime of purportedly quantifying quality set in (that led to the predictable failure – predictable because it had already failed elsewhere – of the journal rankings ‘success’ in the last ERA). But pioneering to the last, the Faculty of Arts at Parkville TAFE is giving it another shot, and wants to try ranking publishers too. Insane – try the same experiment repeatedly and hope for/expect a different outcome? Parkville has just declared itself a tobacco free zone; the signs are that they must already have been smoking something else.

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