Poor public funding may nobble uni research centres

Auckland University's Tamaki campus could soon sprout the equivalent of numerous inter-disciplinary centres of research excellence (CREs), although the public funding allocated to them may not be enough to keep them going.

Auckland University’s Tamaki campus could soon sprout the equivalent of numerous inter-disciplinary centres of research excellence (CREs), although the public funding allocated to them may not be enough to keep them going.

As with many New Zealand tertiary institutions, there is criticism in Auckland of the research development provisions in the May 24 Budget, with $20 million laid out by the government to start up such centres but only $40.6 million allocated to run them over the next four years.

“It’s useful but it’s not enough in the longer term,” says pro vice-chancellor professor Ralph Cooney.

Cooney says there is a lengthy process to go through before CRE status is granted, but he is hopeful the Tamaki campus will eventually be home to research centres covering such diverse IT fields as robotics, image processing, internet communications, manufacturing sciences and speech therapy.

The university is experiencing 10 years of “extreme growth”, says Cooney. “There will be pressure on everybody for tertiary education demand for the next 10 years and beyond. We will see the greatest number of university entrants in the Auckland region for quite some time,” he predicts. At Tamaki, this growth will be focused largely in the post-graduate sector, with a heavy emphasis upon IT.

The inter-disciplinary nature of much future research is key, says Cooney. “One good example is the field of bioinformatics, where biology and computer science overlap, and even in the study of advanced materials generates materials that will be the future basis of the IT industry.

“IT tends to be fundamental across all modern research,” he says.

While attention has been focused on the sciences at Auckland, Cooney says arts will also gain from inter-disciplinary research at Tamaki. “We’re starting a post-graduate programme in speech language therapy, and we’ve started that because New Zealand imports nearly 50 such therapists each year.”

Other voices have been raised against the budget’s provisions for tertiary education. After returning from a study of US universities, Victoria University pro vice-chancellor professor David Mackay said in June that New Zealand universities were in danger of becoming the “poor relations” to internationally benchmarked standards.

“Private universities, such as Stanford, have per-student funding rates up to 35 times greater than those in New Zealand,” said Mackay, and even less wealthy universities had significantly more favourable per-student funding rates.

In May the University of Auckland announced the endowment of a data communications chair, to be based at the Tamaki campus, with money from communications equipment maker Allied Telesyn.

It is hoped a suitable candidate for the chair will be found within a year.

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