Australian political parties duel on research commercialisation

Liberals go focus on undergraduates with collaboration push while Labor hawks reconstruction fund

六月 2, 2021
Tvarozna, Czech Republic - December 3, 2011 Re-enactors uniformed as French soldiers attend the re-enactment of the Battle of Austerlitz (1805) near Tvarozna, Czech Republic
Source: iStock

Research commercialisation is emerging as the key political battleground for Australian higher education, with both major political parties highlighting it in their pitches to universities.

Education minister Alan Tudge was due to announce measures to boost industry-university collaboration at the undergraduate level during an address to the Universities Australia (UA) conference in Canberra. Meanwhile, shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek was set to tout the Labor opposition’s proposed A$15 billion (£8.2 billion) “national reconstruction fund” as a response to the sector’s “cry for help” from pandemic devastation.

When the fund was unveiled in March, it was presented as a tonic for Australian car, train and ship manufacturing. Governed by an independent board, it would provide capital in partnership with superannuation funds and other private sector investors.

In a prepared speech to the UA conference, Ms Plibersek was due to highlight the fund’s role in commercialising university research. “[It] can help translate your brilliant discoveries and inventions into new Australian businesses and new Australian jobs,” the speech says.

“To take our resources and then use our skill and invention to transform them into other, more sophisticated products: as a nation, we haven’t done this as well as we should.”

Mr Tudge, who will reconfirm research commercialisation as the “top priority” in his portfolio, was due to announce a “short review” to foster undergraduate students’ engagement with business.

Led by outgoing RMIT University vice-chancellor Martin Bean and recently departed Victoria University boss Peter Dawkins, it will “develop ideas to create closer university-industry collaboration in teaching and learning and to further ensure future graduates are work-ready”.

“This review will consider how we can get more students to have industry experience, and potentially count that experience as credit towards their qualification,” Mr Tudge’s speech says.

The government’s review of university research commercialisation will be completed in the “next few months”, the speech says. It notes the “strong consensus emerging about the need to do more in this space”, with widespread support for a “stage-gate funding model” for projects that are largely “industry-driven”.

The speech also flags potential legislation against universities that have not embraced Australia’s model code on free speech and academic freedom. Some 33 universities are now aligned with the code and “the sky did not fall in”, Mr Tudge will tell the sector.

“I want to see the model code implemented fully this year, with no more excuses. I will examine all options available to the government to enforce it.”

Mr Tudge will concede that he cannot say when Australia’s borders will reopen to large-scale arrivals of international students. But “smaller-scale pilots” proposed by the New South Wales and South Australian governments could provide a “confidence boost to the sector”.

The “aggregate impact” from border closures “has not been as great as many expected”, his speech says, with overseas enrolment down by 11 per cent and overall revenue by 3 per cent compared with 2019 – although “some universities have been harder hit than others”, and “commencements are down far more than the aggregate decline”.

Ms Plibersek will accuse Canberra of letting international education wither after the government “dawdled” on vaccination and quarantine. “This government treats our best services export and our fourth largest export industry…like a problem to be managed, not a treasured asset to be encouraged,” her speech says.

“If you were coal, iron ore or natural gas, you’d be treated very differently.”



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