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Fate of ARC reform bill hangs in the balance

Federal opposition says it will not support changes to the Australian Research Council

Reforms to the Australian Research Council will rely on cross-bench support after the federal opposition announced it would not support proposed changes to the law.

Shadow science minister Paul Fletcher told parliament on 6 February that the opposition, a coalition of the Liberal Party and the National Party, would not support the ARC Amendment (Review Response) bill. He criticised proposed changes to the rules on ministerial vetoes of research funding decisions.

The bill, which is still before the House of Representatives, would establish a governing board for the council, which distributes around A$800 million in competitive grant funding each year.

In the debate on 6 February, several independent and Greens MPs indicated general support for the ARC bill but also areas for improvement. Only one, independent Zali Steggall, said she would definitely vote for it.

Board size

The ARC’s proposed governing board may be expanded following the conclusion of a Senate inquiry into the reforms.

The Senate’s Education and Employment Legislation Committee released its report on 5 February, recommending that the bill, which was created in response to the 2023 Sheil review of the ARC, be passed.

The board proposed by the bill would have up to seven members, but the committee’s report says that expanding the board would accommodate requirements such as First Nations and rural representation, coupled with the need to “draw on a broad range of skills, experience and expertise”. However, it does not explicitly recommend an expanded board.

“Many academic stakeholders considered the board may be more effective, and representative of the sector and its diversity, with more members than stipulated by the bill,” the report says.

There could also be “clarification” on how the chief executive of the ARC relates to the board, such as whether they will be a member, the committee said, and it “seems reasonable” that there should be a review of the board’s operations after an appropriate period.

The ARC is currently working under an acting chief executive, with no announcement yet on a replacement for Judi Zielke, who left in December 2023 for health reasons.

The committee said that most submissions to its inquiry from major stakeholders were generally supportive of the bill, but it noted some issues of concern around “discovery research”, career pathways, research infrastructure, assessment of research quality and how the ARC would fund the reforms from its existing budget.

Veto rules

Vetoes of research funding decisions by the minister for education remain a sticking point. Under the bill, the minister will still be able to veto funding but will need to explain the decision to parliament. The Group of Eight research-intensive universities called for a “briefing” to affected universities, even if the reasons for the decision are classified on security grounds. The report does not recommend any changes to the proposed veto rules.

A dissenting report from members of the coalition opposition objected to weakening the minister’s powers to veto funding decisions. It said that the changes would be “effectively outsourcing research decisions to a board which is unaccountable to the parliament”, removing “important democratic safeguards”.

This claim was repeated by Fletcher in the debate on 6 February, when he also questioned the government’s commitment to increasing research spending. The coalition report also called for a larger board with more members.

The government says that the bill, along with previous changes ordered by education minister Jason Clare, covers nine of the recommendations from the Shiel review. A tenth, around evaluating the quality and impact of Australian research, will be addressed in the government’s response to the forthcoming Australian Universities Accord, the Senate report says.