The volume of university research went up, not down, during Covid

INSIGHTS & RESOURCES

The volume of university research went up, not down, during Covid

The Australian
by KEITH HOUGHTON
19 July 2022

Key Takeaways:

  1. Despite pandemic challenges, Australian universities experienced a rise in research publication rates, potentially due to intensified focus on research as teaching methods shifted.
  2. Balancing teaching and research impacts productivity. High research involvement may limit teaching, contributing to increased publication rates, while online teaching adjustments affected teaching productivity.
  3. REEF, a tool measuring research and education outputs, demonstrated an average 4.5% improvement in teaching-research balance for Australian universities in 2020, driven by enhanced research publication outcomes and financial control.
  4. Preliminary data for 2021 and 2022 suggests ongoing productivity growth, mainly attributed to research. The public university sector maintained a positive trend in research publications, surpassing global averages.
  5. Though pandemic effects on research might have lagged, certain research fields showed resilience. Medical research surged, potentially mitigating declines. The impact on global rankings and Australia’s relative research performance during the pandemic could be favorable.

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Full Article:

One can be forgiven for thinking that the pandemic has resulted in universities being thrown into a quagmire of seemingly unfathomable challenges.

For example, the Australia Institute document An Avoidable Catastrophe and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency report Forward Impact of Covid-19 on Australian Higher Education, released late last year, described a range of emerging and adverse effects of Covid.

However, none of these reports or commentaries made reference to the possibility that Australian university researchers might actually be able to publish more than ever.

Research publications data shows just that. In aggregate, researchers with affiliations to our universities continued to publish at higher rates than previously. Why is this? How is this possible?

Analysing university productivity is best done by examining both teaching and research in an integrated way. This is because, in general, more of one means less of the other.

So, an academic who is immersed in research is likely to have more limited teaching responsibilities, and one who carries a high teaching load is unlikely to publish as much as might be otherwise possible.

The Research and Education Efficiency Frontier Index is an instrument that measures the two key outputs of universities (and of academic staff) – research and education – in a single comprehensive measure. REEF has been developed as a sector-specific productivity tool by the Higher Education and Research Group.

Official teaching data for the academic year 2021 is not yet available. However, data for 2020, released by the federal government earlier this year, shows that, on average, Australian universities improved their productivity in their preferred mix of teaching and research intensity by an average of 4.5 per cent.

This improvement came from stronger research publication outcomes in the context of tight expenditure control.

Perhaps understandably, teaching productivity – including the added costs of the switch to online delivery – took a back seat.

Research data for 2021 and early 2022 suggests that productivity growth will continue – at least for now.

The public university sector delivered strengthened research publication outcomes last year, as measured by the number of scholarly publications or other creative work where the author nominates an affiliation to one or more of Australia’s universities. While the rate of growth is less than a year earlier, this sector-wide average growth rate is well above the world average. There has been no observable decline in average research quality.

Unless there are significant cost blowouts last year not yet revealed in university annual accounts, there will likely be a further increase in overall university productivity in 2021 as measured by REEF. Again, it is largely if not exclusively down to research.

But is there bad news on the horizon? The 2021 data shows the rate of research publication growth declined compared with a year earlier. The effect of the pandemic on Australian universities and the denial of funding via the JobKeeper program made for a near-perfect storm of financial and other challenges. A common feature of the response by universities was cost restraint. In turn, this led to certain selectivity of research programs being funded. The effects of this may not yet be observable in the data.

Arguably, the adverse effect of Covid is particularly marked in fields of research for which laboratory work or field trips are crucial. Further, the effects were assumed to be particularly significant for states with major lockdowns across extended periods. The data for 2021 does not support this story. For example, 34 of 37 universities improved the total number of university-affiliated publications by 4 per cent or more last year. One university increased its total number of publications by 26 per cent – albeit from a low base.

Somewhat unexpectedly given the extent of the lockdown in Victoria, the biggest proportional increase in publication rates among the research-intensive Group of Eight universities last year were University of Melbourne and Monash University.

The so-called Big 5 universities (Melbourne, Sydney, Monash, Queensland and NSW) dominate the total number of scholarly publications with Australian university author affiliations. Researchers at these five universities contribute to the stock of knowledge with well over 50,000 scholarly works or other creative outputs a year, accounting for more than 40 per cent of all published work in the sector. Remember, of course, the number of publications is not necessarily the only objective; some researchers and institutions concentrate strongly on research impact, application and commercialisation.

Given the expected impact of the pandemic, why are we not seeing declining research outcomes?

Numerous possible explanations exist. Research directly or indirectly involving Covid has spiked – and medical and related research accounts for 50 per cent or more of the publications for certain institutions.

Another explanation relates to timing – that is, the effects of the pandemic may be significantly lagged, particularly in some FoRs. The impact on research programs, including early and mid-career academics who, in some cases, shouldered huge teaching responsibilities, may not yet be observable. Time will tell.

There is a potential impact on the global rankings of Australia’s universities. In part, and at least for now, this might work in our favour given that global university rankings are a relative measure. While scores in respect of other components contributing to global rankings are not examined here, the relative research publication outcomes last year may work in Australia’s favour.

It is, perhaps, a small consolation that, through last year and early this year, Australia’s universities have weathered the research publication effects of the pandemic rather better than the rest of the world.

There is growing anticipation that the federal government’s response to the Universities Accord review’s final report will come soon. Given this and the fact that the budget is less than a month away, it is timely to review one of the final report’s key insights.

Recently released analysis finds that one large Group of Eight university outperformed other public universities in its research and education productivity outcomes during the pandemic.

The joint and common cost problem arises where there are two or more outputs that arise from costs that are shared in the production of these outputs. In many situations, the ability to assign costs to these two or more outputs is not complex. But there are instances where it is highly complex. In these situations, there is a need to use advanced analytics to provide a valid and reliable estimate of costs.

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