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  • Research governance policies threaten university capacity

Short-term income-generating research can erode university capacity — the foundation for long-term economic growth, says Phuong Nga Nguyen.

Around the world, research-based knowledge is believed to enhance socio-economic development. So funding agencies, including governments, are pushing universities to focus on 'usable' research outputs. The way they bring this pressure to bear, through 'research governance', can either support and facilitate university research or hinder it, sometimes even damaging a university's existing strengths.

Research governance refers to policies that key stakeholders, such as governments, donors, industry and nongovernmental organisations, use to manage and regulate research. These policies are intended to set standards for research conduct and help enhance ethical and scientific quality, as well as promoting good practice.

The practice of research governance, and particularly the way funding agencies allocate and monitor research funds, varies across countries according to political, economic and cultural differences. But its effects on both university administrators and academic staff are often the same world-wide.

Commercial pressures

The demands of multiple stakeholders have changed relationships within and between universities as well as with donors and external communities.

In the past, governments and funding agencies gave public universities funds for research development and capacity strengthening. But in the global knowledge economy, such 'core' funding has often given way to more business-like relationships. Funders demand that universities in the developed and developing world alike participate more in the world of commerce. They want to see a return-on-investment through research products or knowledge that contributes to social or economic advancement.

This, in turn, is driving universities to emphasise applied research — sometimes at the expense of basic research and teaching programmes. And some are also favouring short-term projects to produce quick results that can be patented, often starting up their own spin-off companies to advance product development.

Teaching falls behind

Many funding agencies no longer see teaching, which has traditionally been a central part of a university's mission, as the best way of promoting economic development. This attitude is pushing some universities to change their fundraising strategies to focus on research.

This can affect university incentives, mentoring activities and even recruitment policies. In countries like China, 'successful' staff, who bringing in consultancy projects, sell research results to industry or publish in peer-reviewed journals, receive more incentives, such as bonuses or travel allowances.

Universities often reduce teaching commitments so that academics can allocate more time to research. This sacrifices both the quality and quantity of teaching. Even with their reduced teaching loads, academics still tend to neglect their responsibilities to educating undergraduates, often offloading teaching duties onto graduate students to release more time for research. This seems to be particularly true in countries like China, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Capacity is eroding, not growing

Emphasis on the commercial potential of research means that basic or pure research is not given the attention it traditionally received. But university administrators and academic staff are forgetting that it is the universities with reputations for top quality basic research — for example Melbourne University in Australia —that attract the most business partners and funding agencies. Their basic research capacity offers a firm foundation for applied research that partners trust.

Most of the commercialised research that universities promote is based on short-term projects that can quickly generate revenue. Such projects do not cover the overhead costs associated with their use of core staff and facilities.

They also distract universities from establishing deeper, long-term research agendas, damaging broader research capacity and compromising the goal of raising overall research quality.

Taking responsibility

There are some actions that both governments and universities can take to get the best from research governance while limiting its adverse consequences.

Governments and funding agencies should redefine their demands on universities. They should invest more in basic researchand should monitor research processes and outcomes. They should also allocate funds for universities to 'recover resources' — develop their research capacity and upgrade or maintain infrastructure.

Universities must regularly review their internal policies to maintain a healthy balance between research and teaching, and long- and short-term research.

Most importantly, universities must make it a policy to foster internal research sustainability and development by funding training for academic staff, especially young researchers, and buying key materials, books and equipment to meet researchers' needs.

But it is the way funding agencies allocate and monitor research grants that ultimately influences how research is carried out in universities, and sets the pace for motivating researchers. So funding agencies must take responsibility for covering the core costs associated with their emphasis on applied research.

All parties need to help build long-lasting research capacity.

Phuong Nga Nguyen is director of the Centre for Education Quality Assurance and Research Development at Vietnam National University, Hanoi.