We need to value and properly fund research in education to ensure Australia’s future

By Linda Graham

Our future economic growth, prosperity and wellbeing depend on what we do now as a nation. And anything we do should be based on research-evidence.

For those reasons alone, investment in educational research should be at the top of our agenda. Someone please tell me why it isn’t.

Let’s look at school education in particular.

Hardly a day goes by without some collective wringing of hands over literacy and numeracy performance, teacher quality, student absenteeism, year 12 completion rates, teacher quality, school preparedness, university preparedness, what should and shouldn’t be in the curriculum, teacher quality, student distaste for mathematics, high youth unemployment, teacher quality, Indigenous student performance, teacher attitude. And did I say teacher quality?

Yet funding for educational research, one of the few ways we have to better understand and tackle these issues ( including teacher quality)  is scarce and becoming scarcer.

You may be used to hearing researchers in general complain about the lack of funding for research. And I know that we have a so-called “budget emergency”, but some of us are doing it tougher than others.

In a paper to be published in a 2014 issue of Australian Educational Researcher, I investigated what has happened to funding for Education research over time by examining outcomes for the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects grant scheme between the years 2002 and 2014, comparing allocations to education against those allocated to psychology and cognitive Science.

I did this because I was interested to learn if other disciplines were suffering a similar drop in funding to educational research.

I found that between 2002 and 2014 there has been a decline in the percentage of ARC Discovery funding  (the major source of Australian research funding) being received by educational researchers.

However, this downward trend was not shared by our peers in psychology and cognitive science.

In fact ARC Discovery funding to psychology and cognitive science more than doubled in the 2002-2014 period with an increase of more than $7 million, whereas education received only $309,199 more in 2014 than in 2002 (see Table 1 below).

And remember the real cost of research would have grown during this period. In other words, you get a lot less bang for $3 million now than you did a decade ago.

Table 1. Real and percentage change in funding for Discovery, comparing Divisions 13 and 17




Percentage change

Total Discovery funding pool




13 Education




17 Psychology & Cognitive Science




Given the complexities and cost of conducting research in schools, these differences have had a serious dampening effect on research relating to education.

It is also important to bear in mind that education research is almost exclusively funded by the ARC but that psychology and cognitive science also gets a significant share of funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) as well. The funding gap between these important disciplines is therefore much larger than indicated by an analysis of Discovery alone.

There are a number of implications that flow from both the shortage in funding and its concentration, but the one we have to urgently address is that Australia risks strangling the development of future educational researchers – in particular those who have the ability to conduct high quality research in the complex and poorly understood field of school education.

Research in schools is a messy business. Schools are often chaotic places with agendas and timelines that do not gel well with academic research designs (the type of submission that is likely to be successful in an ARC application). Students, particularly the types I work with, can be even less accommodating than their schools.

Unfortunately, these factors are not well understood by our peers and there remains a common perception that education research lacks rigor, particularly qualitative approaches.

It is well known that scientists have worked hard over the last few decades to communicate the value of research in the clinical and natural sciences and that they have been successful in raising the profile and prestige of scientific research.

Given the contraction in education research funding in recent years, it is now critical that researchers in education speak up.

We need to speak up about  the value of the work we do.

We need to speak up about the beauty and complexity of research in this field and  the critical role that qualitative approaches to data collection, and analysis, play in ensuring quality.

We need to point out the invaluable insights and powerful connections  that this type of research can produce.

Bottom line is Australia is spending less and less on quality research in education.

We risk getting what we pay for. No one will win in that future.

Linda GrahamAssociate Professor Linda J. Graham is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She is grateful to have received funding for her research into educational responses to children who are difficult to teach from the Australian Research Council (DP110103093; DP1093020) and the Financial Markets Foundation for Children (2013-030). This research has been published as: Graham, L. J., & Buckley, L. Ghost hunting with lollies, chess and Lego: appreciating the ‘messy’ complexity (and costs) of doing difficult research in education. The Australian Educational Researcher, 1-21.