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In the media: Gap between budget rhetoric and outcomes, says Group of Eight

The Australian Financial Review, May 18 2015

By Vicki Thomson

Federal Budgets are not usually the catalyst for self-examination, but last week’s budget has been.

Working through the budget papers elicited the emotion of “they know not what they do”. And if they don’t then why don’t they, and how much of that is our fault as a university sector for not properly explaining the immense value of research funding to all federal politicians and the Australian taxpayer?

The reasons for the deep rumination were the budget inconsistencies. There is a gulf between what the government has stated it wants/intends to do for Australia via the university sector in its already published statements, and the different reality within the budget cuts. The two separate sets of messages contradict each other.

Here are two examples.

The government has made much of the need to ensure more industry and university collaboration. Its arguments promoting this policy are excellent. Yet last week’s budget cut funding to Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) which are one of the main vehicles that drive industry and university collaboration.

Also, the government has been pushing hard to ensure Australia’s universities stay in the top world university rankings. Again this is eminently sensible because we all know it is our world rankings which attract international students to us. Declining or low rankings equal the loss of students to the UK and the US markets.

The catch is that world rankings are largely driven by research capacity and results, and in the budget the very research monies needed to ensure we can maintain our world rankings (from the Sustainable Research Excellence (SRE) fund) were cut by $262 million over three years. This is particularly bad news for the Group of Eight (Go8) universities which receive some 73 per cent of such funds as Australia’s group of leading research universities. It builds on a worrying trend of seeing research funding as an easy target.

Since 2012, almost $1 billion has been cut from research funding programs – by both the former Labor government and the current government.

Understandably the world of research can seem obscure to many in the community, but the type of research programs that rely, in part on the SRE fund that was subject to budget cuts last week, include:

  • Monash University: a research team awarded funding to investigate how deep brain stimulation can help in the treatment of severe depression.
  • University of Sydney: investigating ways to reduce cardiovascular risk in children born with poor foetal growth.
  • University of Melbourne: breaking the grip of malaria.
  • University of Queensland: child respiratory heath.

There is a plethora of similar research aimed at saving and improving lives taking place across the Go8, so it makes sense that we are concerned about the current state of research funding. Indeed for the past three years we have consistently stated that the current funding model for Australian universities is “broken”. The fact is that the full cost of conducting research through current funding programs is not being met.

Clearly it seems our sector has much more explaining to do to win the support we need to maintain and grow funding. Hence the self-examination.

We must improve our sales pitch

We have much work to do in “selling our message”. We owe it, especially to our students and our researchers, to better explain to all politicians what happens if a wrong financial lever is pulled – as it has been in the past. We owe it to the taxpayer to show that we are not simply chasing the dollar, but chasing the results of high quality world class research for their benefit – and needing essential dollars to do so.

The government did listen on one point and provided an extra year’s funding for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) which the sector is jubilant about after fighting so hard for this to happen. But to fund NCRIS, cuts were made to the SRE fund. This means that in saving the infrastructure, unintentionally, a lever was pulled that diminishes our capacity to perform the very research that NCRIS supports.

The sector has much work to do to explain our needs and what can occur if research funding continues to be short changed. Research is for the national good. Every person benefits from its results and its impact.

As a postscript, there does not appear to be much joy for universities in the federal opposition’s national platform on education which happened to cross the Go8’s desk at the same time as the budget. We accept this is in the early stages of policy development for the next election, but it is concerning that it appears to looks backwards not forwards.

It returns to targets which do not sit comfortably in the broadly supported demand driven system that Labor itself delivered. It brings back compacts which previously failed because they bound university accountability in high-cost and opaque red-tape. It appears to move back from the Gillard government’s biggest higher education achievement: freeing universities to respond to student demand. It includes a welcome focus on quality, but this is not balanced against access. Finally, the platform ignores the big question: how to fund a high quality system, which includes research, while continuing to expand access.

This problem won’t go away. It will only get worse. Our universities must have a long-term sustainable solution to current funding problems.

Vicki Thomson is chief executive of the Group of Eight universities.

Source: The Australian Financial Review


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