Research programmes take a hit as universities and students left in policy limbo
Universities have welcomed a number of positive measures announced in the Abbott Government's second budget but have expressed deep disappointment at cuts to research programmes and the level of progress made in providing much needed higher education funding and policy certainty.
"An additional year's funding for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) ($150 million), one year's funding of the Australian Synchrotron, and $16.9 million over four years to improve initial teacher education are the brightest budget beacons for universities," said Belinda Robinson, Chief Executive of peak body, Universities Australia.
Further, reports that the Minister for Education and Training intends to announce a 'half round' of funding for Future Fellowships in coming weeks has been well-received by the sector.
However, the $263 million cut to the Sustainable Research Excellence (SRE) programme that assists in meeting the indirect costs of research, identified to pay for two years of NCRIS, has come as a severe blow to the sector.
"Given the magnitude of the contribution to fiscal rectitude already made by the sector in recent years, and the number of non-university users of NCRIS facilities (including business and state governments), there can be no justification for the financial burden to be borne exclusively by universities," said Ms Robinson.
This reduction comes on top of previous and substantial cuts made to research block grants over the past three years. In 2012, $500 million over four years was stripped from the SRE program. This was followed by a further reduction of $150 million through the application of the efficiency dividend to all research block grant programmes announced in the 2013-14 Budget and a cut of $170 million to the Research Training Scheme in 2014-15.
"These cuts not only negatively affect universities with established research profiles but also those who depend on this funding to continue to build their research capability," said Ms Robinson.
"Against the backdrop of low commodity prices and the downturn in traditional industries, a prudent approach to stimulating economic renewal is to invest in, not cut, wealth-generating activities like higher education, research and innovation," said Ms Robinson.
Universities continue to express strong opposition to the proposed 20 per cent cut to funding for teaching and learning announced in last year's budget. "Funding higher education is an investment in Australia's future productivity and prosperity. It makes no sense to reduce the level of public investment in university education when Australia already sits close to the bottom of the OECD for the level of public investment in tertiary education as a percentage of GDP," Ms Robinson said.
Universities Australia has also expressed disappointment at the $5 million cut to the Higher Education Participation Programme (HEPP) which assists disadvantaged students to realise their full potential.
Shifting successful and innovative programmes that promote and reward excellence in learning and teaching from the Department of Education's Office of Learning and Teaching to the university sector will leave these programmes worse off but will undoubtedly lead to new innovative ideas and approaches," said Ms Robinson.
"Transferring the responsibility for encouraging and promoting greater Indigenous participation in higher education from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Advisory Council to the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium, should not result in any erosion in commitment by the Government to Indigenous higher education." said Ms Robinson.
In noting the lack of progress through the Parliament of the Government's Higher Education Research and Reform Amendment Bill 2014, Ms Robinson expressed concern about the ability of universities to advise those considering enrolling at university in 2016. "For 12 months, universities and students have been in a holding pattern of policy uncertainty. In the interests of students having the information they need to make one of the most important decisions of their lives, the future of the bill must be addressed as a matter of urgency," Ms Robinson said.
"The ability of universities to drive much-needed national economic and industrial renewal is being hampered by the absence of a long-term plan for higher education and research.
"It is beyond time to stop treating higher education and research policy as a political punching bag and for the Parliament to agree a bipartisan approach that puts long-term student and national interest ahead of all else," Ms Robinson said.
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