The Australian March 04, 2015
By Ian Young
WITHIN the next few weeks the Senate will consider the government’s revised higher education legislation, which has the support of most vice-chancellors.
We see no other way to ensure our universities remain some of the best in the world, providing outstanding education and undertaking research that will underpin an economically sustainable Australia.
Some commentators and politicians say we are misguided and self-serving, that there is no funding crisis and no need for major reform. While I strongly disagree with this view, I can understand how they may arrive at this conclusion — if the legislation does not pass, classes will still occur, students will still be enrolled and graduates will enter the workforce.
However, slow decline will set in — class sizes will continue to grow, facilities will decline, universities will graduate as many students as possible and do so as cheaply as possible.
But a more sudden disaster will hit universities if the Senate rejects the legislation. As well as deregulating fees, this legislation also generates budget savings that will enable ongoing funding for two critically important research endeavours — the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy and the ARC Future Fellows program.
Over the past decade, almost $3.5 billion has been spent by governments and universities in building NCRIS. It represents a network of facilities across the nation that underpins research. NCRIS facilities directly employ 1700 staff and provide support facilities for 35,000 researchers.
The Future Fellows program employs 560 of our most gifted mid-career researchers. These researchers are the intellectual future of this nation, carrying out vital research. If the Senate does not pass the legislation before it, both schemes will end.
Neither the previous government nor the present government have been able to find the resources to fund these programs on an ongoing basis.
Why should we be concerned if these programs end? The National Computational Infrastructure is Australia’s largest and fastest supercomputer. It undertakes a vast array of research important to our future. Researchers use the facility to understand combustion in engines, so that we can build cleaner and cheaper systems and potentially provide Australia with new industries. They study the genome of malignant melanomas, each sample requiring 5000 hours of supercomputer time. Landsat imagery helps us understand and manage drought and flood and better use scarce natural resources.
The Australian Microscopy and Microanalysis Research Facility is a network of microscope facilities that allows researchers to develop treatments for patients with bone damage as they develop new bone scaffolds.
Researchers are also developing needle-free vaccination technology, as well as lighter and stronger steels.
The Australian Plant Phenomics Facility is developing new and improved crops and more sustainable agricultural practices, which is essential if we are to feed the nine billion people expected to populate the planet in 2050.
These facilities will start shutting their doors within months and some of the best scientists will leave to support the economic future of other nations.
There are no easy choices here. What is clear is that governments have not been able to provide sustainable funding. New approaches are required.
Ian Young is chairman of the Group of Eight.