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Sector outlines budget hopes amid Accord buzz

Pre-budget submissions emphasise importance of Australian Universities Accord and call for increased R&D spending

Submissions from Australia’s research and higher education sector ahead of the federal budget show high hopes for new funding and reforms.

Ahead of the budget, due on 14 May, written submissions to the government tied the process to the forthcoming Australian Universities Accord, an agreement between the sector and the government to drive lasting reforms in higher education. 

The Innovative Research Universities group said the budget’s timing was “critical” to respond to the Accord and to “maximise the contribution of universities to national productivity and inclusive economic growth”.

IRU executive director Paul Harris said in a statement that the Accord was “an opportunity that Australia can’t afford to miss”.

The IRU has asked for a new university funding model, support for indirect costs of research and other changes to research block grants, changes to the Job-Ready Graduates student fee system and greater higher education engagement with the Indo-Pacific.

Universities Australia’s submission said “the budget should contain commitments to underpin the future of our universities and foster an environment—through the provision of funding and favourable policy settings—in which they can continue delivering for the nation”.

UA asked for increased research and development funding, funding for more university places overall and “a limited number of fee-free university places for disadvantaged students” in “national priority” areas of study.

The final Accord report was handed to education minister Jason Clare in December, but the report and government response are yet to be released.

R&D concerns

In its submission, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering warned that Australia was at risk of becoming “a technological laggard” if the level of R&D spending was not increased. It asked for government action to increase national spending to 3 per cent of GDP.

Chief executive Kylie Walker said that “to reach the target of 3 per cent…by 2035, we need an annual increase of approximately A$2 billion from the Australian government, supported by an industry investment of a further A$2.4bn annually”.

“Inaction leaves us vulnerable to economic disruption, while comparable nations continue to strengthen their R&D investment.”

In an opinion piece published alongside the Australian Academy of Science’s submission on 14 February, academy president Chennupati Jagadish said Australia needed to stop using “band-aids” to fix a broken research system.

Jagadish added that it had been 30 years since the funding system was fully reviewed. “Good intentions, just-in-time measures, ad hoc interventions, politics and overlapping state and Commonwealth priorities have led to a system spread over 176 programmes and 14 federal portfolios,” he wrote.

“Universities, which perform 87 per cent of discovery or basic research in Australia, rely heavily on international student fee revenues to fund research or to meet the indirect costs, which hard-to-win research grants rarely cover.”

He added that the government “must urgently commission a cross-portfolio, cross-sectorial review of the Australian R&D system. This review would inform a 10-year roadmap to enable R&D to power our economy and meet our national ambitions.”