Australian Universities Back Research Commercialisation as Sector Struggles With Post-COVID Blues

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Industry groups representing Australian universities are backing the federal government’s move to explore how the sector can better commercialise research and technological developments.

The proposal comes as the tertiary sector grapples with a post-COVID economic environment, which has seen the sector shed 17,300 jobs and lose over $1.8 billion in revenue over the past year.

The government launched the University Research Commercialisation consultation paper in late February, seeking to gather ideas on how to best “maximise” the economic benefits of university research.

“We want our high-quality research to better translate into the breakthrough products, new businesses and ideas we need to grow our economy and improve our society,” Education Minister Alan Tudge said at the University of Melbourne.

The Group of Eight Universities CEO Vicki Thomson said the country’s top eight universities carried out 70 percent of Australia’s research activity and were ready for the challenge.

Epoch Times Photo
Front entrance to the University of Queensland on Jan. 12, 2021, in Brisbane, Australia. (Daniel Teng/The Epoch Times)

“The Go8 is fortunate to have some of the best and brightest minds in Australia, and there is a commitment from the sector to share our expertise for the benefit of all,” she said in a statement.

“If COVID-19 has driven one message, it’s that our nation has learned some harsh lessons about being too reliant on others to supply us an ‘end product,’” she added.

Catriona Jackson, CEO of Universities Australia, representing 39 tertiary institutions across the country, said, “We look forward to continuing the work with government and industry to determine how to better translate and commercialise great Australian research.”

“‘Scaling up,’ commercialisation, and translation capabilities is an important aim in the drive to become an even more knowledge-based economy,” she said in a statement.

University of Melbourne, Parkville VIC, Australia
Staff at the University of Melbourne have knocked a proposed pay cut and changes to voluntary redundancies. (Eriksson Luo/Unsplash)

The Regional Universities Network (RUN) also supported the move, with CEO Nick Klomp saying he looked forward to demonstrating the capabilities of regional institutions.

“RUN universities undertake research ranked at the highest levels of excellence in highly applied areas including agriculture, environmental science, human movement and sports science, health science, mathematical science, and engineering,” he said (pdf).

The federal government’s move could prove profitable for the sector, as demonstrated by the Israeli tertiary sector, which is often held up as a shining example of how universities can effectively commercialise their research.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has earned over U.S. $20 billion in commercialisation revenue over the years, according to the Australian Financial Review.

While university groups welcome the government’s proposal, Associate Professor Salvatore Babones of the University of Sydney warned commercialising research was no easy feat.

“Commercialisation has long been the holy grail of university research funding, ‘Always sought but never found,’” he told The Epoch Times.

University of New South Wales UNSW
Students walk around the University of New South Wales campus in Sydney, Australia, on Dec. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

“The problem is that university and commercial research priorities differ dramatically. In most cases, it makes more sense for a private company to simply poach university researchers if their research truly has commercial value,” he said.

“I strongly suspect that most universities will spend more money on their commercialisation offices than they actually earn from commercialisation,” he added.

Babones last year published research highlighting the heavy reliance Australian universities had on international student revenue.

Australia had the second-highest number of international Chinese students (127,176) in the world, behind the United States (369,548), despite the size disparity between their sectors.

However, the onset of COVID-19 and subsequent border closures has devastated the sector.

“There is no doubt that some universities obviously got their equations wrong,” former Vice-Chancellor Greg Craven of the Australian Catholic University told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“What worries me is the university system as we knew it, which was not perfect, will never come back again,” he said.

Catriona Jackson of Universities Australia estimates the sector is likely to lose another $2 billion in revenue in 2021.

“If an international student didn’t enrol in 2020, the loss would be felt for what would have been their entire three or four years at university,” she said.

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