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Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation
Regional development and decentralisation

KING, Mr Conor, Executive Director, Innovative Research Universities

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR: Thank you for joining us. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the House of Representatives. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today attracts parliamentary privilege. Would you care to make an opening statement? After that, the committee may put questions to you.

Mr King : I want to briefly talk about the Innovative Research Universities, because some members of this committee know about us and others don't. There are seven universities, which are all based either in an outer-metro area and were originally city bound when first founded or in significant major provincial or regional areas. You're in Bendigo now, where La Trobe has a campus as well as its outer Melbourne campus at Bundoora. There's also Western Sydney, Griffith in Queensland with its Gold Coast base, James Cook at Cairns, where I am today, and Townsville, Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory and beyond, Murdoch in Western Australia and Flinders in South Australia. We are strongly interested in regional matters, but we also put them into a broader context of how things work nationally.

Your paper focuses on the options for decentralising Commonwealth entities and corporate decentralisation, but there's a third issue in there about Commonwealth programs and the way in which they do or don't essentially support equal opportunity in all areas of Australia for businesses and people to thrive. I'll use one or two university examples, but my point is that this has wider application which you can interpret and take up, as you will. Some government programs are just general entitlements, for which it doesn't really matter where you are, but the government only wants to have so many of a given thing. If it wants 40 or 400, then it asks everyone around the country to put up their options and bids; it then generally tries to rank them against criteria but it treats each one on its own merits. While that sounds good in principle, the risk there is that the ones who come at the top are a little more prepared and have built on things that are already strong. If the point of the program is not to simply find the best and get it going or support it but also to ensure at a national level that, whatever the program is about, that opportunity exists across the country, then another criterion should be laid over the top which says: when you look at the better ones and those worthy of some central investment, can you ensure there is a good spread across the country? That should be one of the criteria. Could there be an intentional national outcome as part of the criteria that government programs should at least consider?

The example we're most interested in right now in the university world is big research infrastructure. The Chief Scientist has developed a road map for the things that are needed over the next decade. He's not interested in where they actually go, but the next stage at which government could fund this would be to go out and find hosts for that infrastructure. Experience from previous rounds of big investment is that these are things that no university could support alone and would not use in full. The point is a university or a couple of universities would host this for all researchers around the country. In the past most hosts have been concentrated in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. The brunt of the argument is that all of them are meant to be accessible to any researcher. They'll often say these days that, with digital means, you can log in from anywhere and access the facilities, and that's true. But that has a turnaround, because you can say someone in Cairns or Alice Springs can dial into something in Melbourne but equally someone in Melbourne can dial in and connect to something that is based in Cairns or Alice Springs or elsewhere. So that's why we have made an argument that, if the government does indeed invest in a major research infrastructure program, and that is a separate issue, it should make sure the hosts for those are well distributed throughout the universities across the country. There are other potential programs where the same issue emerges. That is another theme that I thought was relevant to the issue the committee is approaching. That's the end of my opening spiel.

Ms CHESTERS: Thank you for that overview. You represent a number of universities. Why is it that we struggle to get regional research into regional campuses—for example, La Trobe? A lot of the academics are still based in Bundoora and not here in Bendigo, Wodonga or Shepparton. How can we encourage the research dollars back into the regional campuses?

Mr King : I believe you are talking to La Trobe later, and you can push them on that. Maybe part of the issue here is that the national funding system for universities distributes a lot of money based on student numbers, and it probably makes sense and most of the time it works. For La Trobe, the allocation for Bendigo is fairly large but all the others have small numbers. The alignment there between what students may be studying and the research that could be relevant in the area isn't necessarily strong.

In La Trobe's case, they do lots of things with water and things along the Murray, which don't necessarily connect to any of the teaching they're doing. So their struggle in some way is driven a little by that. Then it's a question of where researchers, who may have interest in issues relevant to a whole range of areas, are more likely to want to live. It's overcoming the spiral effect, I guess: as things become more attractive and interesting and some people start to be somewhere then it builds up, and others will be equally attracted and you can create a stronger research base in those areas.

That's part of our argument about not trying to change the way in which some research grants are allocated—targeting the best projects and the need to do that—but that research support facilities and things are equally capable of doing the research from different parts, such as Bendigo or Shepparton, as they are from Bundoora. There's no easy answer there I think is the point, and we're struggling with it. You can ask La Trobe further about that.

Ms CHESTERS: It's not just a La Trobe problem. All of our universities, except probably James Cook, have struggled with that; would you agree?

Mr King : In terms of my membership, James Cook is based in Townsville, Cairns and the major parts of regional northern Queensland, and Charles Darwin is wholly based here. If anything is happening, it's happening in a regional area and there are the spin-off impacts that that can have. The challenge there is: can you keep it going? I think Sandra Harding in talking with you emphasised that, yes, James Cook has to have this research base and will continue to do it but she has various challenges for all universities but she has to make that add up. Charles Darwin is trying to build up its research strength. It's more focused and has a very strong health and medical research focus—a lot of it is Indigenous health but other public health issues as well. That's its dominant area, but it actually makes it a very strong research player.

Ms McGOWAN: I'm really interested in how we can make a 20- or 30-year connection between education, research and regional development. I'm wondering who takes the leadership role. This committee is going to have to make recommendations about regional development and decentralisation, and it's really clear that this is an area that's not had academic rigour and a long-term study. As we were doing the literature review on this, we got reports from all over the place. A consolidated body of knowledge is glaringly obvious. Could you please give us your ideas about leadership and what the role of the Commonwealth would be in supporting research into this topic?

Teleconference reconnected

CHAIR: We have you back. Ms McGowan was asking a question. I'm not sure how much you heard.

Mr King : I answered the question about the rest of Australia and I didn't hear much after that.

CHAIR: Over to Ms McGowan again.

Ms McGOWAN: I want your advice on a national approach to rigorous academic research on regional development and decentralisation. Who could play the leadership role over the long term? As a bit of a preface, when we were doing the issues paper for this inquiry, it was really clear to us that there is no body of recognised research. There is individual research and people doing bits of it, but no actual agenda for looking at regional development. I'd be really keen on your ideas and a discussion about how, over the next 20 years, we might be able to get a body of knowledge. I suspect that the issue of regional development is not going to go away in the short term and that the more evidence we can get will benefit our policy making.

Mr King : I don't pretend to know in depth whose research is going to be most relevant to you here. The discussion paper has gone out to certain people. The most recent thematic research that I know of amongst my members would be James Cook's tropical focus, which is regional—a fair slab of the world—and its application across the whole of the tropics is its theme. The way to explore this would be to pick up on the fact that there are individuals with interest. It's a question that is really cross-disciplinary. It's a problem focused issue. There are various government approaches to setting up research centres with a broad theme or a focus on a particular issue. There are a number of things within the Australian Research Council's suite of programs where something could be constructed or added, and it would have the capacity to assess the research rigour of what was going on and would put it on the same footing as other research. That's important to the status of anything that is set up, that it has to convince the rest of the research world that it's serious.

What you could, clearly, build into that is a requirement that the hosts—and you probably would want more than one institution to be involved in the running, just to make sure there's an interest and a buy-in from a range—explicitly locate that outside of the major capitals, on the basis that that's the whole logic of it. You would no doubt get some excellent bids from some of the big capital city places to say they would explore the issue. I think you would want to write that criteria in, and see how people respond. It has often been said that universities, once given an opportunity, will produce a series of proposals to take it up. If no-one's done it to date they haven't yet seen, I guess, the return that could come from that.

My suggestion, and you need the government to pick up on this, would be to support an ongoing major research centre, but 'centre' you would interpret broadly as involving some key leads, with connections out to quite a wide range of other institutions. I think you would find a number of universities most interested in this area would put their effort together to come up with a credible proposal around that. You talked about 20 years or beyond. This is something you might get funded for three to five years to start with and there would have to be a regular reassessment and, possibly, a couple of times it may even end up being moved or, if it's very successful, just become a well-established part of the research world in a decade's time.

Ms SWANSON: Can you talk to me a little bit about the shared experience of your members and regional development, both the wins and the shortfalls, what your institutions have found?

Mr King : There is a little—I am making this up as I go—summary on this. I'm just thinking of the diversity of people I represent—each region has its own interests and challenges. The common factor here—and I'm thinking, in the Griffith Gold Coast expansion, it's not always considered regional. But when they point out the very low depth of higher education attainment across the Gold Coast, and it's been quite characteristic and different in the parts of Brisbane quite close to it, they make that case fairly strongly. It is an example of what you can do by, essentially, creating, putting buildings in, putting programs there and trying to force the local community to see the opportunity and enrol, which mostly has happened. Griffith's research is split across—not so much split but spread—all its campuses and there is major activity happening on the Gold Coast and people to base there, but they move between there and the original Brisbane campus at Nathan. That has been fairly successful. The James Cook challenge is working with the economy to the area. Here, in Cairns, in particular, it is fairly thinnish and, being an essentially intellectual focus, it's a group of people where the relationship with the rest of their community is one where sometimes it works better and sometimes it doesn't.

I know the issue of local government and even the whole northern Australia redevelopment still has a very strong focus on stuff you can put your hands on and see, build, rather than the more intellectual underpinnings for the digital economy options. So how to combine both those things, I think, is important.

There is stuff about your access to the internet. The universities have led the way through something called AARNet which endeavours to provide the same level of connectivity to each university, but it still tends to grow faster, or the start-off for the newest things still tends to be in the bigger cities, and then it gets connected to the rest.

CDU has just started to build into the Northern Territory's governance issues around how to develop the Territory. It has a fair degree of extra investment through the Territory government, effectively funded by the Commonwealth; it's on top of what you call the standard university moneys. Some of that gets to the point where you have to decide you want something in a place and follow through, try to find the investment and hope that from that you will bring the university ecology to bear and that students and researchers will follow.

Mr DRUM: Thank you very much, Mr King. It's disappointing to see in the statistics and in the documentation here that only six per cent of research takes place in regional Australian cities, because you would like to think that so many of the regions have this area of critical mass within them. I suppose, from a Victorian point of view, you would like to think that the South-West Coast could be a hub for renewable energy. You'd like to think that the Gippsland area could be a hub for fossil fuels and that the Goulburn Valley positions itself well for horticulture and water issues. There are parts of northern Australia where you would be looking at Indigenous affairs and Indigenous health, and in WA you would have minerals and resources. But it doesn't seem to be the case. Is this because we don't have government funding to facilitate this, or is there some other blocker that is stopping the universities engaging in research in the areas where they already have a critical mass established?

Mr King : I think I covered this a little bit earlier. A university presence in communities smaller than where you are now, Bendigo—the townships that are 10,000, 20,000 or 30,000 in size—is always an ongoing struggle. In south-west Victoria, Deakin had its challenges to keep things open, and I can't comment beyond that point. If there is a university presence there, the funding is talked about as being for students, and universities are fairly explicit in saying a portion of that does support their research activity. But that's the general effort of every academic to be involved in some research. The problem is that you need education programs that bring a strong research flavour with them and the people behind that. For example—I'm not totally sure about this—La Trobe has put its dentistry program in Bendigo. That just means that, if you're a dentistry academic with them, you have to be there, and that may be spinning into some more interesting research. If you let the teaching be the fairly generic courses or the big business and other programs, they are fairly useful, and many people want to do them; that's why you can keep them going in smaller communities. But the chances of research spinning out of that are going to be that much harder.

It's trying to be more like a spiral effect. Each thing that gets a little bit better will make other parts of the system better as well. If you can make it spiral upwards, that'll start to create some alternative hubs, and universities can be a mechanism to put in some life or change the nature of the economy in a region. But if it goes the other way—at various times, each of you has experienced a situation where a smaller campus is under threat—then it can go in the other direction, and other things are pulled out.

Mr DRUM: I suppose that ultimately what you're saying is that you first need to establish a significant presence in a particular area, and then, on the back of that significant presence, you're going to find various research opportunities within that teacher/student cohort, and that's going to be located wherever your major universities are, not where the areas of specialty are.

Mr King : Yes. I think that is true. I know you can say there are issues to do with the environment or with rural agriculture and other effects, but the number of people wanting or able to do that research and where they are based don't necessarily align straight there. Murdoch, another one of my members, is very strong on agricultural research and veterinary science, but it's all based out of its campus in Perth.

Ms CHESTERS: As a bit of a follow-up, I might ask it a different way. Given that our universities aren't investing these research dollars in the regions—and you just used Murdoch as an example—do we need the federal government to actually put that on the table and say, 'If you want access to this new funding, then it needs to be in regional setting,' and invite expressions of interest for that? With the rural school of health that you referred to in terms of dentistry in Bendigo, that was federal government funding to build it in a regional setting. Do we actually need to look at that when we say programming? Academics and researchers are probably the most mobile profession that we have around the world. They're not resistant to moving to a campus, to an area, to pursue their passions and their research. Is it actually about the government intervening, rather than letting the university decide? How would your member organisations react to that?

Mr King : You start to put me in a potentially contradictory position. I am here: advocating for them is my main role. If there is a new initiative—and it goes back to my original comment and the one you just cited, the health precinct for Bendigo. If you're going to do this, you want this, then go and do it properly and put your money in—in that particular case—Bendigo. With some of these things, make them spread out, where you are going to put some rules around it. On the whole, the universities obviously like a full degree of flexibility, but, if there's a national logic about strengthening the opportunities of various regional economies, then state that as part of the criteria, and then they will do their best to work with it. The fact that you have to keep some thought around is that you do need a reasonable number or size of people in activity, so there is a fair bit of money that goes into that. It's whether any government is going to be prepared to just underwrite that and how long they will be prepared to underwrite it. But, with time, it can work.

When we were doing those numbers and that analysis—and I may need to correct this—that was more to do with where the major research infrastructure is rather than the research activity. How I treated Canberra was kind of a question, because it's a smallish town in numbers. While we can't have another major capital, it's a classic case of a potentially extraordinary amount of investment then producing the return longer term. Without creating another Canberra or two, that point is illustrative of what can happen if you do it.

In terms of academics moving around the world, that's quite right: they are the leading example of an industry or area where people do move and always have. These and other things are always a little bit annoying around the edge, from an academic perspective. In the Australian tradition, there has been an overlay of the preference still for the big cities, which is not true in the United States or the United Kingdom. In the United Kingdom, the distances are quite different compared to ours, but the United States does have very large distances as well. If it's a special area and that's where they can get the funding to do their research, to pursue their interests, after a couple of years others will be interested and follow, and then it may build up.

The only thing I would just caution here is that the Australian government might be in a position to do this in three, four, five or six places perhaps, across the whole country, so it's still going to mean a lot of communities don't have that, but something that tries to use that as one lever to provide a counterbalance to the bigger cities and the problems they are experiencing is definitely worth exploring and working through. If there's an option put up, it would be that each university will think about its capacity to get involved to support that.

CHAIR: I acknowledge that, in your submission you referred to research infrastructure as much as research systems and programs. From a program perspective, does the Commonwealth research centre experience provide any positive or negative learnings in relation to some of your comments going forward?

Mr King : What do you mean by Commonwealth research?

CHAIR: Apologies if you are not aware: there have been some years of CRCs, Commonwealth research centres—collaborations between universities.

Mr King : Yes—they are cooperative research centres; that's what the first 'c' stands for.

CHAIR: Sorry, you are correct; my apologies.

Mr King : Being correct is not really relevant; it's more that I now know what we're talking about. The CRC experience has certainly been an impressive one for getting research end users together with universities. Research end users—it's a clumsy phrase—are mostly industry and commercial, but there are and have been other aspects to some of them. I must admit I'm not very clear about their locations—probably perhaps slightly more regional if they are focused on a particular issue that has a logic. But they're pretty much still strung around the universities, so I think their locations tend to be similar to those of the universities.

That is an example; the explicit money to support the CRC is not enormous, and it's there to support the administration. The university and the industry and other partners are the ones who bring people and the resource together and focus on a given issue. It is perhaps similar to the earlier question from Ms McGowan about a regional research focused body, but I wouldn't hamper it by being a CRC style with its requirements for external other bodies. Are there lessons there? I think it shows that, if you create an option, universities will work their way together. That one has its issues about the industry partners, and I think the critique or the worry at times is that they drift to being a bit too academic again, not solving the problems. But on the whole the view is that they've done quite well. I think '91 was the first one, so that's coming up to 30 years. It's one of those rare things that has managed to kick on and go through different rounds. It's changed over time but has worked. So maybe there are some lessons that can be drawn there.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr King. Our time for discussion with you has drawn to a close. Thank you for your participation here today. I advise that you will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and you will have an opportunity to request corrections to any potential transcription errors. On behalf of the committee I thank you for your time and your contribution, which will be useful for our broader consideration.

Mr King : Thank you for the opportunity.