Expanding research commercialisation presents new challenges

Universities are set up to optimise funding from student enrolments, not to prioritise research commercialisation. Scaling up research commercialisation will require nuanced policy and a cultural shift.

The pandemic has exposed problems with an eggs-in-one-basket approach to university funding. Research commercialisation has been presented as the best alternative, but there are obstacles that must be overcome to take advantage of it.

Australian universities are optimised to support their traditional enrolments-based funding model. They suffer from a dwindling supply of people who actually spend a majority of their time doing research, because academic staff spend their time overwhelmingly on administration and teaching. The industry also features an exceptionally high rate of casualisation among academic staff, which we know in part is because the non-permanent staff are more flexible and sensitive to a demand that changes in response to seasonally fluctuating enrolment rates.

The industry has grown around a core pillar of student enrolments. Measures effective in prioritising teaching, maximal student enrolments and administration are less effective in encouraging lucrative industry collaboration. We would not be the first to point out the value that US and European universities have gotten out of having effective university-based mechanisms for technology transfer, charged with intellectual property, technology licensing and other aspects of commercialisation. Recently, there has been some recent movement in this direction: with the Government’s February announcement of an Action Plan to supercharge research commercialisation, was included a priority for “the creation of a new IP Framework for universities to support greater university-industry collaboration and the uptake of research outputs”.

But research commercialisation will require buy-in not just from universities, but also from their commercial partners. In 2020, small business continued to account for over 97% of all Australian businesses. Most of the Australians able to enter into specific collaborations are involved with small businesses. Their capacities and appetites for risk need to be considered when crafting policy around research commercialisation. R&D tax offsets, programs that advise businesses and matched grants currently exist—but small businesses often have narrower margins, and “matched” funding or tax write offs aren’t always the best options for them. At the moment, even finding the right grant for which to apply can be a complex task.

Changes to the way we approach funding for the higher education industry will require more than just advice and analysis in the media or the dangling carrot of a grant accessible to only a small percentage of universities, like the new Trailblazers Universities package. At the present, the support available is not as nuanced as might be preferred, and the majority of our universities are all too accustomed to accommodating their enrolments-forward funding model.

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