Economic picture goes dark
By VICKI THOMSON
12:00AM APRIL 10, 2019
While Josh Frydenberg has trumpeted that the federal budget is back in the black, in the cold hard light of day the picture for the nation’s research-intensive universities is dark and getting darker.
Make no mistake, this is a budget that clearly deﬁnes the government’s priorities, and they do not include universities, their students or their research. Indeed, this is a budget that is stark in its priorities and trade-offs and its determination to hope voters think short term and hip pocket only — and of course beyond the headlines that suggest everyone’s a winner, the devil is always in the detail.
Funding for bricks and mortar to teach our next-generation workforce (what nation doesn’t need one of those?), and to undertake the research that changes and saves lives, has been redirected to fund a new emergency response fund.
This amounts to about $3.9 billion stripped from the nation’s universities.
The Group of Eight is not saying something as important as an emergency response fund should not be funded, only that when government is trumpeting a surplus it is a mockery to then have to redirect money, rather than use available funds.
Funding for our nation’s research agency, the Australian Research Council, has been reduced in each of the next three years and by the end of the forward estimates the level of funding to the ARC will be less than it was a decade earlier.
What responsible government does that in an era of unprecedented speed of change and global competition?
How our competitor nations must sneer at the ridiculousness of this; yes, even Britain mired in Brexit has more foresight.
Meanwhile the EU is planning for a €100bn ($158bn) research strategy to be rolled out in 2021.
There also are further reductions attributed to changes in indexation to research funding to universities by way of the research block grants.
Universities are not eternal optimists. We understand that every budget contains trade-offs — none more so than a budget announced just days before a federal election and ﬁlled with ballot box sweeteners for those who prefer not to delve into the small print.
But when those trade-offs come at a signiﬁcant cost to the national economy, they will have an adverse effect well after this government is but a footnote in Australian history.
The government has very clearly drawn a line in the sand with this budget, forgoing investment in a sector that underpins a $35bn international education industry.
Instead the government focus is on a budget to woo back voters in marginal seats in a desperate bid to retain government.
The Go8 universities are political pragmatists. We have to be.
So, our request in this budget was very simple — no more cuts, no more robbing Peter to pay Paul. We were told our expectations were very low — and on that front the government did deliver.
We are left asking the question: if the government is not willing to properly support universities in a surplus budget, when will it ever?
Australia cannot afford to wait for a unicorn budget of a super-surplus in a non-election year before government provides the required strategic support for universities.
The hard truth is that without proper support for universities to provide the innovation and workforce that the economy needs, the chances of Australia enjoying structural surpluses into the future are slim.
It is such a shame to watch our nation’s economic future being ignored so a political party can attempt to save its own.
Vicki Thomson is chief executive of the Group of Eight universities.