Australia ‘undermining research while reviewing it’

International student caps will endanger research funding just as a leisurely R&D review considers how to fix it, Senate committee hears

June 6, 2024
Arborist climbing up the tree and cutting branches off with small petrol chainsaw
Source: iStock/Iryna Melnyk

Australia’s research and development review will not report until a year after the government has jeopardised universities’ primary source of research funds by seizing the power to control their international enrolments, a Senate estimates committee has heard.

Department of Education officials said the “strategic examination” of the research and development system, announced in the 14 May federal budget, would report at the end of next year. Meanwhile, legislation empowering the government to cap overseas student numbers would take effect at the beginning of 2025.

Independent senator David Pocock said international students and parking fees were the sector’s only sources of untied funding. “Most universities are cross-subsidising research from international students. What’s the government’s plan, if we’re capping international students, to ensure that we’re not compromising research budgets at universities?” he asked.

“The timing of this…is very material, particularly to research universities. If there is a material impact on research budgets, will the government step up to ensure that we’re not losing more and more researchers?”

He said “dozens and dozens” of researchers were already being cut from the government science agency Csiro.

The assistant minister for education, Anthony Chisholm, said universities’ “financial health” would be considered during consultations on the international education bill. “I imagine it’ll be one of the features on government’s mind as it forms final views about…changes it wants to implement,” he said.

“We want to ensure that our universities are a vibrant place of research. I’m confident, under our policy settings and future changes, that will be the case.”

The committee heard that the terms of reference and expert panel composition for the research and development review were “currently under consideration”. A “small team” had been assembled to “take that work forward over the next 18 months”.

Mr Pocock said research and development spending was at “the lowest percentage of GDP on record” and “well, well below” the governing Labor Party’s 3 per cent target. “We’re going to really pay the price for this in the future. What I’m hearing is that Labor’s not doing anything in their first term. Why is this being kicked down the road? A review’s important, but research comes down to funding.”

Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi described the proposed international education caps as “racist dog whistling” and challenged government and departmental representatives to name a single education stakeholder that supported the idea.

Dr Faruqi said Labor politicians had criticised the previous government’s Job-ready Graduates reforms as a “dangerous extension” of ministerial powers. She asked whether Labor would be comfortable with its political opponents making the sort of “power grab” envisaged in the international education bill.

She also asked whether the government had done any modelling to show that capping international student numbers would increase housing availability or reduce rents. A Department of Education official said such questions were “premature”.

“There is currently a consultation process going on,” he said. “The government hasn’t made final decisions yet about the sustainable level of international student arrivals that it wishes to see.”

Mr Chisholm said some universities had indicated that they were “open” to caps “because it will give them the confidence in the future around how they operate. I believe there are parts of the sector that welcome [this]. We want to work constructively with them. It is important that there is confidence in the system and that we do manage this in a sustainable way.”

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