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Research and research culture

A change in approach to research and research funding

The late 1980s and early 1990s was a time of great change within higher education across Australia. The Labor Government’s changes in higher education policy brought about by Education Minister John Dawkins were not limited to inspiring mergers and large-scale closures of technical colleges and TAFEs. Dawkins’ ‘Unified National System’ had major implications for research and research funding in the tertiary sector.

The emphasis of research was altered. No longer was pure, basic research to be the focus of academic inquiry. Rather, strategic research that addressed national economic and social problems was to be prioritised according to government policy and the associated funding. For Engineering, however, this shift in emphasis at the government level was not necessarily problematic. With its long history of industry collaboration and practically focused research and development, the Faculty’s research focus had arguably been strategic, with clear applications to the national economy, since its foundation. What was of greater concern to the Faculty was the reduction in overall grant funding from the newly established Australian Research Council (ARC), which replaced the existing Australian Research Grants Council (ARGC).

As well as receiving a considerable amount of financial support via industry collaboration, the Faculty of Engineering had been exceptionally successful in receiving ARGC grants and funding for research. A glance through the Annual Reports submitted by the various Deans to University Council over the years or the Research Reports produced by the University from year to year, reveals consistent high achievement in both the total amount of industry and ARGC funding received and a continual increase in the number of publications produced by academic staff.

Despite Engineering’s success in research, other faculties in the University were not necessarily performing as well. In addition, the mergers of the late 1980s and early 1990s introduced a number of traditionally teaching focused departments from the former Chisholm Institute of Technology and the Gippsland Institute of Advanced Education to existing Monash faculties. Staff of these former CAEs had previously not been required to engage in research and struggled to do so in the new, merged Monash. Even the highly research focused Faculty of Engineering experienced a decrease in its research output post mergers.

Some years before, in an attempt to strengthen the University’s research profile and to address the new research priorities and funding formulae of the Federal Government, the University introduced a new position to assist in the management of research – Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research. This role was filled former Dean of Engineering Peter Darvall, initially in an acting capacity, then, from April 1994, on an ongoing basis.

This was a difficult time for research at Monash University. Even though the faculties of Medicine, Science and Engineering continued to perform strongly in the context of research, Monash lagged behind some of the other major Australian institutions in terms of research performance. Much of the efforts of Darvall and the central University administration were directed towards making Monash research more competitive against the performance criteria established by the government.

Despite a dip in research output after the mergers, the Faculty of Engineering continued to perform relatively strongly. Indeed, while many other faculties struggled, Engineering continued to attract both industry and external grant funding for research and development. The Faculty performed particularly well in the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) scheme that the Federal Government introduced in the early 1990s.

The CRC scheme formalised much of what Hunt, the Foundation Professors and early Engineering staff had established within the Faculty in its first decades. That is, collaboration between industry, university and government institutions. The scheme commenced in 1991 and sought to provide government grant assistance to support collaboration between publically funded researchers, and what the current CRC guidelines refer to as ‘end users’. Peter Darvall, who was Dean of Engineering at the time the CRC scheme was first introduced, recalls the purpose of the CRC scheme as being a government attempt

to try to get the best people in various specific areas to work collaboratively rather than separately, because universities are great at developing their own expertise, but they very rarely – at that time anyway – walked across boundaries and collaborated with other universities or organisations like CSIRO or industry bodies or individual companies.

audio

CRCs (audio)

The government invited proposals from collaborative groups – comprising universities, industry and research institutes – to establish ‘centres’. If successful, they would receive a substantial injection of government funds for a period of three years to establish a CRC. The idea being that industry and other partners would also contribute to the CRC both in kind and through financial support.

Clearly this kind of collaboration favoured the Faculty of Engineering, which had been engaging in consulting activity and research collaboration with industry partners since the early 1960s. Indeed, a bid for a CRC was successful in 1992 and brought about the establishment of the CRC for Hardwood Fibre and Paper Science. The partners were Monash University, University of Melbourne, CSIRO and the Pulp and Paper Manufacturers Federation of Australia.

In 1992 Monash was also part of a successful bid to establish the CRC for Catchment Hydrology. This CRC’s strategic research was directed at predicting the future water productivity of various landscape catchments undergoing changes in land use and vegetation. Its activities were targeted at agricultural and forested lands in several States. The CRC was based at the ACT, but involved partnership between Monash University, University of Melbourne, Bureau of Meteorology, CSIRO, and a number of government departments and water authorities.

Darvall reflects that in the early years of the CRC scheme

audio file
Establishment of Pulp and
Paper Institute (audio)

the Monash Faculty of Engineering captured, or was part of more successful CRCs than any other faculty in any university in Australia. So we started on what's remained a long-running program with a very powerful first step; Catchment Hydrology, Aerospace Structures, I think Pulp and Paper, Telecommunications, Advanced Materials … We were very successful and it was an enormous morale boost for the Faculty because it was Australia-wide recognition of great achievement in many areas.

The introduction of the CRC scheme was symbolic of the more formalised approach to research and research funding that had begun to characterise federal research policy. Centrally, Monash followed suit encouraging the development of areas of research priority, strength and formalised research groups.

crcs 1994
List of Research Centres 1994

These changes were easily weathered by the Faculty of Engineering. Its strong research culture and history of research collaboration paved the way for continuing success in CRC bids as well as the consolidation of research activity into research groups or centres. By 1994 the Faculty had seven Cooperative Research Centres, and fourteen ‘special purpose’ departmental research centres across the Clayton, Caulfield and Gippsland campuses. 

Today, CRCs, research groups, Centres of Excellence, research centres and dedicated specialist research facilities in the Faculty of Engineering both define and focus its research activity. A current list of research activity within the departments of the Faculty lists these numerous centres of research, and facilities.

Through its research the Faculty of Engineering continues to make important contributions to society. The Faculty also continues to build and foster the important connections with industry and external groups that have characterised its research activity since the earliest days of its existence.

References

  1. Monash University Archives, Ken Hunt Staff File
  2. Monash University Archives, Report of the Interim Council June 1958 – July 1961 and Report of the Council August – December 1961
  3. Monash University Archives, Report of the Council, 1962, 1963, 1964
  4. https://www.crc.gov.au/Information/default.aspx
  5. Information Booklet for courses at the Clayton School of Engineering for 1994, prepared by the Sub-Dean Dr G K Cambrell and issued to all level one students
  6. Simon Marginson, Monash: Remaking the University, Allen & Unwin, New South Wales, 2000
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