Government to pull $328m out of research infrastructure grants

For a second year in a row the government has used MYEFO to slug universities.

Yesterday’s Mid Year Economic Forecast and Outlook reveals the government will strip $328m in research funding, to increase support for regional universities, and then some.  Quite a lot of then some. There are warnings this morning that MYEFO could force universities to put on hold recruiting research students.

What happened: The overall saving announced yesterday is nearly twice the cost of the November $138m regional uni package (CMM November 12).

MYEFO states savings from the Research Block Grants scheme will total $328m in the four years from 2018-19. The money will come from the RBG scheme’s Research Training Programme and Research Support Programme.

The Innovative Research Universities warns that the RSP hit will be especially hard, “because of commitments to current students.”

“If applied harshly it could cause a significant pause in research student recruitment.”

The dark details:  A learned reader adept in the dark arts of budget smoke and MYEFO mirrors has reconfigured the government’s fiscal year figures into calendar year numbers and explains that MYEFO 2018 is presenting something similar in approach to last year’s December funding freeze. The 2019 figures for both RTP and RSP will be the same as in 2018, providing a new base for indexation in 2020. The increases supposed to flow in 2019 and 2020 under the 2015 Watt Report on research funding are also lost.

The LR suggests this will mean reductions on the 2018 Budget for the Research Support Programme of 4 per cent in 2019, 8 per cent in 2020 and 10 per cent in 2021, or $216m down. The Research Training Programme will lose 2 per cent each year, totalling a $66m drop. All up the reduction looks like $282m for those three years, with the balance of the government’s announced cut coming in the first half of calendar 2022.

For anybody interested in how much every university will now receive next year the Department of Education and Training sets out all the numbers  here.

All in a good cause: ““The Morrison Government believes that every Australian, no matter where they live, should have access to our world-leading higher education system. We have invested over $350 million since the 2018-19 Budget to support students in regional and remote Australia” Education Minister Dan Tehan said yesterday. However peak bodies are not buying it.

The appallathon begins:  Responses were angry and early, with peak lobbies quick to respond. Universities Australia’s Catriona Jackson called MYEFO a “ram raid on Australia’s future economic growth, prosperity, health and development.”

“The government portrays MYEFO as a good news story, but it looks like another budget horror for universities. Cuts to Research Block Grants are short-sighted and unnecessary … We have the chance to invest now in future capability, not back away from it,” IRU’s Conor King added.

The Group of Eight’s Vicki Thomson was understated as always, calling MYEFO “attacking, counterproductive, illogical and yet again put on display how much this government devalues research and education.  …  MYEFO continues the debilitating historical trend of cuts to higher education and research which now seems to be independent of budget cycles, and ignores the reality that research investment is essential to underpin Australia’s economic strength, and jobs – the health and wealth of Australia’s community.”

The Australian Technology Network’s Renee Hindmarsh made a similar point. “Reducing research funding will hinder Australia’s capacity to remain competitive on the international stage.”

Emma Johnston, president of Science and Technology Australia, suggested science should be a funding priority, saying, it is “important to keep the cost of living low and to ensure that taxes were fair for all Australians, however funding for science and technology should not be cut to achieve this. We cannot be in a position where governments are so focused on lowering taxes that our research and development grinds to a halt.”

The National Tertiary Education Union saw MYEFO-predicted budget surpluses as an opportunity for spending. “The windfall gain in revenue should be used to invest in Australia’s future, increasing the level of public investment in university education and research,” federal president Alison Barnes said.

Australian Academy of Science president John Shine said more money for regional unis is “encouraging” but funding it via RBG cuts is “unfortunate”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Regional Universities Network was not talking yesterday.

What it means:  It appears the Morrison Government thinks there is research support that is cuttable and research that is not. While the Go8 warns MYEFO will have an impact on labs working on Medical Research Future Fund projects, the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes told members the NHMRC, ARC and MRFF escaped unscathed. “This means the Medical Research Future Fund remains on-track to be fully capitalised by 2020-21.”

In contrast, MYEFO last year ended demand driven funding for undergraduate places and froze university funding and this year research block grants take a hit.

Perhaps ministers have decided universities, ex medical research, are one community they can afford to ignore, even annoy, as they go into campaign mode.


to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education