No more ‘delays and interference’ in research grants, Labor vows

But new Australian education minister silent on sector’s calls for more spending on teaching and research

July 6, 2022
Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, government, politics
Source: iStock
Parliament House, Canberra

Australia’s new Labor government has promised an end to “delays and political interference” in research grants, as it lays out its reform agenda for the university sector.

Education minister Jason Clare has pledged to undertake a sweeping review of the Australian Research Council, as recommended by a Senate committee in March. He also promised to balance the “integrity and independence” of Australian research with the need to safeguard national security.

Addressing the Universities Australia (UA) conference dinner at Parliament House, Mr Clare also vowed to speed up visa processing for international students and to fund loans for graduates and students launching start-up companies.

And he promised more than A$20 million (£11 million) of additional funding for the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, based at Curtin University, to help improve the diversity of student cohorts.

“I don’t want us to be a country where your chances in life depend on your postcode, your parents or the colour of your skin,” he said.

But his speech was silent on the top item on universities’ wish list: more funding for university teaching and research.

In a speech to the National Press Club, UA chair John Dewar had said that the extra 20,000 university places previously promised by Labor, combined with additional places generated through reforms enacted under the ousted coalition government, would still leave the sector 19,000 places short of what was needed to match population growth.

“That’s before we even consider that daunting figure of 600,000 new jobs requiring university graduates over the next five years,” Professor Dewar said. “We need to ensure that supply of university places keeps up. We can’t let these young people down and rob them of their aspirations.

“We’re asking you to invest in Australia’s future. Support our universities so that they, we, can help the Australian people construct a better future. Give us the tools we need, and we will help Australia do the job.”

Quizzed on how the sector could justify calls for extra funding, given the unprecedented surpluses some universities had amassed in 2021, Professor Dewar said institutions needed cash in their war chests to weather “a very tough 2022” as international student numbers fell lower than at the start of the pandemic.

“This year is going to be a really tough year. A lot of vice-chancellors are forecasting that they will be reporting deficits. We could see that coming…so what a lot of universities did was to prepare themselves. In doing so, they may have generated more surplus revenue over cost,” he said.

Mr Clare promised an independent review of the ARC’s role and function, “with a particular focus on the governance framework and reporting mechanisms”, to complement the council’s current evaluation of its internal administrative processes.

“It’s my job to make sure the ARC has competent leadership and is functioning well, that its objectives are clear and that its processes are rigorous and transparent,” the minister said.

He warned that delays and interference in the operation of competitive grants damaged Australia’s international reputation and made it harder for universities to recruit and retain staff.

“You work with industry. We want you to work with industry. Industry want certainty. Time means money. They want to get on with it. So do you,” Mr Clare said.

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