Celebrating 20 years of IRU impact

Over the last 20 years, the impact of the universities in the IRU has changed lives and communities across Australia and our region. This is an Australian success story, with the expansion of the university system providing a platform for inclusion and innovation into the future.

A lot has changed over the last 20 years but our shared values and priorities are more important than ever.

As we look ahead to the future, we applaud the foresight of the colleagues who established the IRU in 2003. We are committed to furthering our work together and contributing to a more equitable and innovative Australia.

Read Celebrating IRU Impact here. 


In 2003, IRU members had 127,714 domestic student enrolments

In 2021, IRU members had 175,139 domestic student enrolments


In 2003, the IRU domestic student cohort was

  • 16% low-SES students,
  • 1% First Nations students, and
  • 16% regional and remote students.

In 2021, the IRU domestic student cohort was

  • 19% low-SES students,
  • 2.4% First Nations students, and
  • 18% regional and remote students.


Since 2003, IRU members have educated 849,836 graduates

In the past decade (2011-2021), IRU members graduated 5,061 First Nations students

Since 2003, IRU members have educated

  • 109,015 nurses and health professionals
  • 37,709 teachers
  • 12,760 engineers


Since 2006, IRU members’ total number of research publications has more than doubled. In the last decade, they have produced 11% of all research publications in Australia.


In 2003, IRU members had a total of $143,199,549 in research income and funding

Now (2022), IRU members have a total of $489,656,130 in research income and funding


In the period 2006-2009, IRU members published 611 highly cited publications

In the period 2017-2020, IRU members published 1,959 highly cited publications

*Most recent figures as at July 2023

Secretariat Successes

Public policy and thought leadership

From its establishment, the Innovative Research Universities (IRU) has collaborated on evidence-based approaches to public policy and strengthened the voice of its members with government. In 2003, one of the founding priorities was to provide members’ perspectives on the 2002 higher education reforms put forward by then Minister Dr Brendan Nelson within the Higher Education at the Crossroads paper. In 2007, the IRU convened a major event to discuss the national implications of university rankings after the first Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) was announced. Since 2003, the IRU has made 185 formal submissions to Australian Government policy reviews, in addition to many other discussion papers, statements, and appearances before government and parliamentary committees.

Academic calibration and collaboration

In its 20 years, the IRU has remained focused on developing educational collaboration and capacity among its members and supporting student success. This began with Flinders University’s and Griffith University’s collaboration on curriculum in 2004, and has since expanded to multi-year, multi-university projects.

In 2006-2007, IRU members collaborated on a series of masterclasses for PhD scholars. In 2009, the IRU signed a two-year Memorandum of Understanding with the Australian Chamber of Commerce and
Industry to develop new resources to support Work Integrated Learning. In 2012, the Digital Futures Initiative incorporated collaborative projects and forums that focused on technology-enabled teaching and learning, while in 2013 the IRU Asian Languages Network was established to facilitate languages teaching and practice.

Operating since 2012, the IRU Academic Calibration Program has been the longest running collaborative project among members. The program facilitates an external peer review process to calibrate academic assessment and student outcomes among members to support accreditation through the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency. The program is a documented endorsement of the consistency and reliability of education, quality, collaboration, and assessment within the IRU.

These projects have been followed by other benchmarking activities, including new collaboration in cybersecurity in 2022. IRU member universities continue to collaborate on innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

Vice-Chancellors’ Fellow

In 2016, the IRU Vice-Chancellors’ Fellow program was established to boost collaboration among IRU members in areas of shared priority. Each VC Fellow has brought exciting and innovative projects that build capacity within the IRU and have led practice within the Australian higher education sector.

  • 2016-2017, Professor Jessica Vanderlelie (La Trobe University)
  • 2018-2019, Associate Professor Amani Bell (Western Sydney University)
  • 2019-2020, Brendon Douglas (Charles Darwin University)

International partnerships and engagement

Internationally, the IRU has facilitated partnerships in both education and research. Developing new opportunities has been a key focus since 2005, when a Memorandum of Understanding was signed with the 1994 Group of Universities in the United Kingdom. Into the 2020s, the group continues to work together on new strategic international initiatives.

Since 2003, IRU student exchange programs have facilitated ongoing collaborations between our institutions. In 2005, the IRU established a European Union Centre and facilitated EU funding for student exchange in environmental sciences. From 2014, ahead of the New Colombo Plan, the IRU created the Scholars in Asia program that provided study abroad and internship opportunities for students in China, India, and Cambodia. In the same period, early career researchers participated in a mobility program with Thailand. In 2018, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed with the French Embassy for internships in student mobility.

In 2014, the IRU and the Malaysia Research University Network (MRUN) signed a Memorandum of Understanding and began a program of collaborative and innovative international research. At its conclusion, the IRU-MRUN project had successfully completed four collaborative teaching and learning projects, and funded another 11 research projects. In 2018, the IRU and MRUN published a joint report on the implications of digital learning.

The IRU Pakistan Project commenced in 2018 to build partnerships and increase brand awareness. With a joint in-country presence, this five-year partnership has facilitated educational webinars and workshops, school engagement, formalised meetings between government and senior education officials, as well as formal agreements through Memoranda of Understanding. It enabled IRU members to continue to build partnerships and support students through the COVID-19 pandemic.


Sharing best practice

The members of the IRU came together in 2003 to establish mechanisms for sharing best practice. Since 2003, this has taken many forms, including regular meetings among Vice-Chancellors and Deputy Vice-Chancellor committees focusing on Academic, Research, First Nations, International, and Corporate issues. These committees have established working groups to address priority university issues, with 13 such groups operating in 2023. First held in 2005 at La Trobe University, the Innovative Research Universities Senior Leaders’ Forum is an annual in-person event (with the exception of a break during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-2021) that highlights the important work of the Innovative Research Universities and their leadership teams. Operating on a rotating schedule between members, the Forum enables university leaders to hear from key policy makers and provides opportunities for collaboration, discussion, and advancing IRU’s strategic goals.

IRU member impact case studies

Equity and access

In the last two decades, Australian society has grown, diversified, and faced unprecedented changes. For people and communities across the country, access to important services in health and education remain a challenge. Within this landscape, the IRU has been proud to expand its members’ commitment to access and inclusion within the higher education system, as well as facilitating research that expands equity and access to essential services for all Australians. The IRU is a leader in providing access and support for student groups that have traditionally faced barriers to higher education. Half of all IRU domestic students are the first in their family to attend university and IRU members also educate disproportionately high numbers of First Nations students and students from low-SES backgrounds. The IRU educates approximately one in five students from regional and remote areas of Australia. The research and education programs undertaken by IRU members give priority to improving access and participation in higher education, while developing impactful support systems for student success.

Leading the way for Māori and Pāsifika students

Creating safe spaces for vulnerable students

Readying a rural health workforce for northern Australia

First Nations communities

First Nations people are the first educators and innovators, with long-held philosophies of Country. As institutions of knowledge, our universities are proud to play a role in continuing these traditions. Taking a leadership role in the Australian higher education system, in 2014 the IRU signed a Statement of Intent on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education that saw members commit to student and staff success, increasing First Nations research, and the privileging of First Nations knowledge in universities. The IRU Indigenous Leaders Network is central to this work. Members facilitate collaboration for First Nations student and researchers’ success, which in turn informs proposals for policy reform. Focusing on students’ transition into university, Yunggorendi Student Engagement at Flinders University provides support systems for First Nations students. To ensure students’ success, James Cook University is seeking to close the gap between First Nations and non-Indigenous students’ university completion rates. La Trobe University amplifies Aboriginal students’ voices through an emphasis on Aboriginal education and pedagogical practices, and Murdoch University is expanding Aboriginal women’s participation in the sector. The University of Canberra seeks to grow the representation of First Nations staff and students while building community partnerships, and Griffith University shares this commitment to Indigenous futures, diversity, and inclusion. At Western Sydney University, research is focused on supporting First Nations students in their post-university careers.

Peer support for Aboriginal mothers

Empowering community wellbeing

Creativity and connection with arts-based service learning

Universities in their local communities

The IRU has played a major role in the expansion and intensification of research activities across Australia over the last two decades, including industry partnerships and commercialisation projects. This research strength, however, is equally measured in collaboration with publicand community-sector partners and support for local community needs. Diverse communities throughout Australia require tailored and targeted research and programs for their unique contexts and challenges. The role of IRU members in their communities has driven positive and productive research that makes a difference to people from all walks of life. Each year, the IRU educates professionals to supply much-needed skills in priority fields, including health, engineering, information technology, and education. In the last two decades alone, the IRU share of graduates in the fields of health, natural and physical science, information technology, and engineering has expanded. Across Australia over the last decade, the IRU has supplied more than 100,000 health professionals and 37,000 teachers. In both education and research, IRU members bring positive and impactful change to the communities that they serve.

Connecting students with seniors

A creative force for healing

Shining a light on Western Sydney’s literary voices

Partners in the Indo-Pacific

Beyond Australian borders, the IRU has been charting a course for building research impact and collaboration throughout the Indo-Pacific region. With patterns of knowledge production shifting dramatically around the globe in the past 20 years, this region has come into focus as an area of rapid growth in research and education. Partnering with universities, researchers, industry, and local communities throughout the vast Indo-Pacific neighbourhood, the IRU has developed innovative and sustainable solutions for the challenges facing the region. These collaborations have built two-way partnerships from the local community level — impacting the safety, wellbeing, and livelihoods of day-to-day residents — all the way through to local, state, and federal governments. International education also remains valuable to Australia’s economy and employment now and into the future. For IRU members, educating international students has forged relationships throughout the Indo-Pacific region. In the last decade, the top four countries for IRU international students (both onshore and offshore) have been Singapore, China, India, and Vietnam. Since 2003, the total number of international students educated within the IRU has almost doubled, highlighting the growing strength of these Indo-Pacific partnerships.

Taking cyclone safety standards by storm

A sustainable walk on the wild side

Agriculture for changing climates



For two decades, the IRU has been a leader in sustainability research and education. Research activities have remained focused on sustainable and socially-responsible solutions for communities in Australia and internationally. This is reflected in the growth in very highly cited publications in Life and Earth Sciences in the past decade, with IRU members accounting for 15% of Australia’s total of very highly cited publications in this field in 2020.

Research collaboration among IRU members over the last 20 years has also focused on environmental sciences and multi-disciplinary approaches to sustainability issues. For example, the IRU created the Australian Water Partnership in 2004 as the first step in building stronger collaboration within the group. In 2010-2011 IRU members co-funded a research initiative on Ecosystem Tipping Points, leading to three collaborative projects and a forum. In 2011 IRU members also launched a publication on disaster preparedness and resilience.

A fresh take on groundwater modelling

Spilling the secrets on bat virus spillovers

Answering burning questions in Australian conservation

Futures for Australia

In the years leading up to the IRU’s 20th anniversary, the world has witnessed a remarkable transformation with major geopolitical, demographic, and technological shifts. A commitment to innovation is at the heart of the IRU’s shared goals. This commitment highlights members’ openness to new ideas and a collaborative approach to developing methods, models, and solutions for partners in a way that contributes to social progress.

Now and into the future, Australian universities remain critical to the nation’s economy, productivity, and living standards through the graduates and research they produce. In the past two decades, the IRU has facilitated the attainment of higher education qualifications for more than 800,000 students. Collectively, IRU members provided employment to over 15,000 people. The economic value and productivity of research within the IRU is similarly crucial, with members more than tripling their research income and funding in two decades and contributing research that is essential to the future of Australia.

Research for industry productivity and sustainability

Bringing technology to people

Advancing nanoscience for industry and research