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Universities look to Accord process to bridge budget shortfall


Student support measures praised but institutions bemoan low level of R&D spending in Australian budget

Australia’s universities have found little to celebrate in the budget on 9 May and are looking to the Australian Universities Accord for possible relief.

Catriona Jackson, chief executive of the vice-chancellors’ group Universities Australia, said in a statement that although the inclusion of students in cost of living relief was positive, there was a continuing low level of spending on research.

“Every dollar spent on research returns A$5 to the economy, and university-educated workers make the economy A$185 billion bigger,” she said. “A 1 per cent lift in funding for research would expand the economy by A$24bn over a decade.”

She added: “We need more skilled workers and more research and development, not less, but we can’t do it without more investment from government.”

Aukus skills

The budget included specific funding for student places and placements in key areas such as psychology and the skills needed to deliver the Aukus defence programme in collaboration with the UK and the US.

The Group of Eight research-intensive universities praised the additional places but said there was some concern that “the vast research capability which is equally as critical to Aukus Pillar 2 was not considered a priority worth inclusion”.

“The focus is now on the Universities Accord process and future budgets to deliver on reform that will address the current distorted research funding model and lift Australia’s expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP to, at the least, the OECD average of 2.7 per cent.”

The Australian Technology Network of Universities praised the student equity measures in the budget but said “there is still more to do through the Universities Accord”.

An interim report is due next month in the Universities Accord review process, which should ultimately lead to a new agreement between universities and the government.

No major shift

Further analysis of the budget by the Australian Academy of Science confirmed that it contained no “major shift” in research funding, although some research commercialisation schemes, such as the Trailblazer Universities programme, were reaching “maturity” in funding terms.

It also noted increases in funding for some science agencies, including the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and the National Measurement Institute. Funding for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation will remain stable, according to the academy.

Science and Technology Australia, which represents more than 100,000 scientists and technologists, said the budget “lays the foundations” for a further build-up in science spending.

President Mark Hutchinson said in a statement: “Over the next year, major reviews will shape the next phase of the strategy for the government to start to dramatically escalate public investment in R&D to generate new breakthroughs, grow our science, technology, engineering and maths-skilled workforce and secure Australia’s future economic prosperity.”