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Universities call for long-term funding plan from next government

Whatever the outcome of this year’s elections, Australia’s next government should produce a national research investment plan to ensure long-term stability and provide more support for higher education, Universities Australia has said.

In a policy note entitled ‘A Smarter Australia’, the vice-chancellors’ group sets out its top priorities for the 2013-16 government. These are: increasing participation in higher education; supporting universities in their international efforts; investing in research; and changing regulation to help universities secure alternative funding, such as through philanthropy.

Universities Australia warns that, although investment in research has been strong, the “stop-start approach” that has been taken recently is “undermining efficiency”. This is eroding Australia’s research capability and compromising the potential impact of the country’s research effort on national productivity, economic diversification and industrial renewal, the group says.

There should be a sustainable model for funding research infrastructure and the indirect costs of research should be met, the vice-chancellors suggest. The Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council should have their grant programmes protected from funding cuts, and the future fellowships programme should be extended to add to the country’s research workforce. The incoming government should work “closely with the sector to develop a practical approach to assessing both the quality and impact of Australian research”.

Action is also needed to address bureaucracy in higher education, Universities Australia says. “Universities report on numerous fronts to multiple authorities and jurisdictions, and much of this is in relation to regulations and requirements aimed at other sectors…Servicing these obligations diverts resources that would otherwise be directed to teaching, learning and research.” A potential remedy is to appoint a productivity commission to review regulatory burdens.

Universities Australia chairman Glyn Davis said, in a speech to the National Press Club in Canberra on 27 February, that the policy document aims to show the next government that higher education should be a central part of the national economic vision. Australia should follow resource-rich countries such as Qatar by investing its wealth in higher education, he said.