Changing the Rules of the Game


Sometimes changes in policy are trumpeted in press conferences, and even debated in parliament. Others happen through stealth, with the simple revision of wording in one clause of apparently obscure regulations. This is the account of such a change.

For those outside the university system, lives of academics seem passing strange. We teach, we research, we publish; and for about six months of every year we are in a state of heightened anxiety as we play a complex game known as ‘ARC Grant application’ (a.k.a. ‘competitive grants’). Success at this game is essential for promotion, and in some cases for survival. With universities discarding whole faculties in a desperate attempt to stay afloat, an ARC Grant may save an individual’s career, or even sustain a school or a discipline until the next time.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

The Australian Research Council ( is the principal source of serious research funding for local universities. It is the conduit for all Commonwealth funding and the arbiter of the rigorous peer review process that examines every application for research gold. It is possible to access funds from private industry or quango, but the ARC is not only the most likely source of funds, it is also the most prestigious. There is no taint of conflict of interest with this money. Because of the rigorous nature of the peer reviewing process, being awarded an ARC grant is seen as evidence that the researcher (or project) is at the top of their field.

Because so much is at stake, and the competition is so fierce, every aspect of ARC grants are governed by rules. These rules are written in such exquisite detail that only true scholars can turn their finely wrought concepts into a fit and proper grant application. The closest parallel is with princesses and peas. The problem lies in the way the rules are changed, so that yesterday’s princess is tomorrow’s goose girl.

I have no problem with the principles behind insisting that every grant application needs to be justified. The very act of writing this kind of grant application forces researchers to clarify their thoughts, to reflect on their previous projects, and to plan so that every dollar of hard fought for Canberra cash will be properly spent. The university sector is too financially hard-pressed to have room for waste or self-indulgence. From my observation, both as an applicant and as an assessor, all involved do their level best to play fair by the system and support the rising stars.

It is no surprise that researchers from the big well established universities (a.k.a. Group of Eight) dominate successful grant applications. The years when Menzies, Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke were in power and created an educated class, left the older universities in a reasonably comfortable position. They have local research offices that employ excellent staff, all dedicated to finessing individual grant applications. They also have the best working conditions for senior scholars and are located in the large and comfortable cities. One of the criteria in assessing grant applications is to examine the track record of each applicant. Those who produce (books, refereed publications, inventions) are those who are rewarded. Despite the best efforts of politicians, the university sector remains, unashamedly, a meritocracy.

Although some grants are given to individuals, most are for collaborative projects either within or across universities. Again, this makes sense, especially for a small country with limited resources. Another sound policy is to encourage universities to collaborate with public and private sector entities to share expensive equipment and infrastructure.

The grants for these co-operative purchases, Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities grants (LIEF), cover the big ones. They pay for great and expensive analytical machines (the minimum amount for an application is $100 000), and also the kind of infrastructure that allows research to happen. The growth of the web has seen a revolution in humanities research in those fields which are distinctly Australian. Probably the best known of the LIEF funded sites is Austlii (, the Australian Legal Information Institute, which is an essential tool of trade for lawyers as well as legal researchers. There is also Austlit (, the gateway for Australian literature. More recently the Australian Dictionary of Biography has received funding to go on line, and I am associated with the Dictionary of Australian Artists online, another LIEF recipient.

In combination these projects will revolutionise research in the humanities in Australia and (because they are on the web) give Australian culture an unprecedented international profile. They will also give people outside the university system ready access to the kind of serious information that used to be buried in reference libraries.

In every ARC collaborative grant, the partners have to indicate a level of support, in cash and in kind. The organising institution, which therefore gets the most kudos, is the one that puts in the most. But every researcher (called a CI or ‘Chief Investigator’) gains status by being associated with a successful grant, and every university needs ARC grants to prove they are really research institutions. With these great humanities projects, the cash support pays for project management, copy editing, software development, copyright, and the technical complexities of data entry. But these projects fail without the input of specialist researchers.

Until this year it was possible to have LIEF partnerships between the big universities and serious scholars in regional universities. This way the great humanities projects could have a national scope, and regional talent had the opportunity to play in the big league. This was very much to the national benefit.

This year however, there is a new rule in the twenty-two pages of instructions ( Rule 3.3.5: Cash contribution by organisations reads: ‘each collaborating organisation must contribute at least 20 per cent of the highest contribution of the collaborating organisations.’ From the perspective of comfortable Canberra it seems so logical. Universities like partnerships as it makes their applications stronger. One way of testing if a partnership is genuine is to see how much money their university will devote to it. In Canberra, 20 per cent seems a reasonable sum to ask a minor partner.

There is only one problem with this equation. All universities are doing it tough, but regional universities are doing it tougher. Newcastle, with its forced redundancies, is only the first of the regional cookies to crumble. There is no money for upfront research funding, and certainly not the kind of money now needed for a LIEF partnership.

Without the presence of local perspectives and grass-root knowledge, it will be harder to completely map the country, its histories, its art, and its literature in any humanities research. Without the chance to work as full partners in these great projects, the researchers in regional universities will find their efforts go unrewarded, and their institutions will likewise be deprived of essential research funds.

It will then be easier for those who would see a smaller, more elite university system to argue that there is no evidence that the smaller universities have any productive scholarship at all. This may be an accident, or it may be a coincidence, but this rule change has now been known for close on two months. Within the humanities, at the research offices where grants are being prepared, people are talking. The academic communities are aware of the problem, and its implications. But nothing has appeared in the media. This may be because questions of rule changes in ARC grants are not as easy to explain as ready attacks on international students. Yet this is actual policy change through the stealth of regulation, and such changes should not go unremarked.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.