Uncertainty about future funding for universities is “untenable” and must be addressed before this year’s federal election, the peak body representing Australia’s higher education sector has said.
The chair of Universities Australia will use the organisation’s annual conference today to call for a “detailed, sophisticated debate” about higher education, which contributed $140 billion to Australia’s economic growth in 2014.
“This is an important part of the Australian economy and the uncertainty is untenable,” Professor Barney Glover told AM.
“We need to get clarity and I don’t think it’s enough to say that in the lead-up to the next election we can continue to consult about it.”
Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham has been consulting with the sector since the Government shelved its 2014 budget policy to cut funding and deregulate student fees.
“The Minister’s done a great job in consulting, but we really need to see the fruits of that as part of this discussion in the lead-up to an election,” he said.
Labor announced its higher education policy in September last year, including a new funding guarantee for each student.
Professor Glover said the announcement was welcomed but the sector was still looking for more detail on the way Labor would fund universities.
“At the end of the last Labor government there were significant cuts that were proposed to universities and [we want to know more about] the future of those cuts, under a Labor government, how that fits within their policy framework,” he said.
Research funding in the spotlight
Universities Australia said it was also looking for Labor to provide more detail about its plans for research and development funding.
Professor Glover described the Federal Government’s innovation and science agenda as a “great step forward” for research, but noted it was only a “beginning”.
A review is due to report next month on the effectiveness of the $2.9 billion spent on tax concessions for businesses which engage in research and development.
That funding represents 90 per cent of the Federal Government’s total support for innovation in the business sector.
“I think it’s fair to say that over the last decade when we’ve seen a very significant increase in the R&D tax incentive … we haven’t seen the same improvement in Australia’s international innovation performance,” Professor Glover said.
He said the Government should consider reallocating some of that funding to a competitive process, where companies could bid for direct financial grants, instead of a tax break, to help them collaborate with universities and researchers.