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Universities call for ‘immediate bridging relief’ to rescue research

Image: CNBP [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Australian vice-chancellors’ pre-budget submission warns of lost research capacity without increased federal funding

The national vice-chancellors’ group Universities Australia has said the nation’s research capacity is at risk and has called on the federal government to offer an “immediate intervention” in the upcoming federal budget.

In a strongly worded pre-budget submission sent to federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg on 1 September, UA says universities are crucial to the nation’s recovery from the Covid-19 crisis and need more help if the country is to retain its “standing army of experts”.

UA chief executive Catriona Jackson (pictured) said that around 27 per cent of nationwide university R&D budgets, or A$3.3 billion, was at risk. “That translates to an estimated 7,000 research-related academic staff among the 21,000 university jobs at risk,” she said.

“Unmitigated, these declines have the potential to cause long-term damage to the national research system, especially when…universities perform around 90 per cent of the fundamental research undertaken in Australia and 43 per cent of all our nation’s applied research.”

UA has asked for funds to stabilise the research workforce, increased funding for research projects and an improved tax incentive for business investment.

The submission says “the reduction in revenue from international education will have a serious flow-on effect to the capacity of Australia’s universities to conduct research and development on behalf of the nation”. It says that more than a third of R&D takes place inside universities and suggests that a quarter of all university research is at risk unless funding is increased.

The submission outlines the role universities have played in response to both Covid-19 and the bushfires earlier in the year, pointing out that they have been developing tests and vaccines as well as advising governments on response plans. “If a successful vaccine against Covid-19 is developed, it will rely on knowledge that has been generated in a university somewhere.”

“However, there are challenges facing universities’ ability to work on behalf of Australia,” the submission says. “UA urges the government to consider support to ensure that universities’ vital activities can be continued throughout the pandemic.”

With research interrupted by restrictions, “no additional funding has yet been made available to allow researchers time to overcome disruptions caused by the pandemic”, the submission says. It calls for “immediate bridging relief”.

“Other countries have acknowledged this immediate threat to research and provided funding to support research continuity and retention of talent.”

The submission quotes previous research showing that the revenue drop in higher education could be around A$3.1bn to A$4.8bn this year, with a total of A$16bn lost between 2020 and 2023. Universities are limited in their ability to raise extra funds, it notes, and what industry investment they have will continue to decline in the near future. “A$3.5bn of university R&D could be at risk. This will be bad news for every Australian and every part of the community.”

The government could also assist university research by offering businesses that collaborate with universities a premium rate of the R&D Tax Incentive, the submission says.

UA has asked for a federal contribution to existing initiatives “to support international students to meet their basic needs for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis”.

“Funds are close to exhausted and numbers requiring assistance are not diminishing.”

The submission also recommends funds to help develop alternatives to clinical experience for health professionals in training, such as online training and simulations.

The budget will be announced on 6 October.