Budget response: pragmatism prevails

Aside from deplore-a-grams from student groups and unions about not enough money, budget responses started pretty positive on Tuesday night. They stayed that way yesterday. The STEM lobby seems pleased (although there is not that much money up front.) The med research lobby did not get red bikes and ponies, but got enough to be positive about the funding. And the universities followed Universities Australia president Margaret Gardner whose Tuesday night statement was conciliatory. It seems higher education strategists have decided that the demand driven system is not coming back and they should now focus on the future.  This is very good news for the government – unless Labor decides it wants to fight the next election on higher education, as well as VET, universities are off the political agenda.

The Australian Technology Network set the tone yesterday, welcoming the research infrastructure package, “in line with the delivery of a world class research system which continues to improve in productivity, create jobs, lift economic growth and support sustainability.”

There was, of course, a but. The ATN “sincerely hopes” changes to the R&D tax incentive, “do not hinder efforts to boost collaboration between industry and universities.” Um, those will be the $2bn in savings across the forward estimates changes which are in response to the science-community supported Review of the Three Fs two years back. Back then reviewers Ferris, Finkel and Fraser warned; “a smaller amount of expenditure focused more tightly on the areas of improvement identified in this review would be more likely to provide greater benefit to the Australian economy (CMM September 29 2016).

The Innovative Research Universities complained (“mean-spirited and pointless”) universities will be hit for $10m to recover access costs of student loans and will have to pay for the seven-year TEQSA reaccreditation process. However, the IRU acknowledged the $1.9bn for research infrastructure and new areas of Medical Research Future Fund spending, “are significant steps to maintaining Australia’s world quality research system.”

ANU VC Brian Schmidt also backed research infrastructure spending, notably the previously announced money for the two super-computer centres and space agency – all of which ANU will use. But he also endorsed the regional student pathway places which are not likely to benefit ANU; “the only thing that separates one person from another is access to education, and this is a strong commitment to providing greater opportunity for more Australians.” Well said.

And in what may well be a first for a budget, peak medical research lobbies did not warn of the fatal consequences of insufficient funding. The Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes pointed to the Medical Research Future Fund being on track to reach its $20bn capital target in 2020-21, infrastructure funding and an exemption for clinical trials in the R&D tax incentive changes.


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