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.

Ramsay on a roll

The University of Queensland will commence negotiations in the new year for the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation to fund an undergraduate degree. Vice Chancellor Peter Hoj made the much-anticipated announcement yesterday morning in a message, assuring, “all UQ staff and students that the principle of the university’s independence with regard to academic decisions is a red-line issue for UQ. This point was recognised and understood in the discussion with the Ramsay Board, as was the need for UQ to engage in genuine consultation about the proposal and the likely governance principles that would overlay any potential partnership.”

The news was greeted with a measured response by campus president of the National Tertiary Education Union, Andrew Bonnell; “If Ramsay is able to meet the threshold tests, principally relating to university autonomy and guarantees of academic autonomy, then the debate about the academic merits of the proposal will get under way, and I fully expect that debate to be a lively one. Colleagues have already expressed concerns about the possible impact of this proposal on existing humanities programmes, and on UQ’s relationships with non-Western and Indigenous communities”.

In contrast, the NTEU is upset indeed with the agreement between the University of Wollongong and Ramsay announced yesterday. A Ramsay degree will be taught at UoW from 2020 in a deal worth $50m plus over eight years.

Negotiations were conducted so quietly that the Monday morning announcement was the first UoW staff outside a tight loop knew of the deal.

“Given the great controversy surrounding the proposal to establish the Ramsay Centre at other institutions, colleagues are shocked they have not been consulted prior to the decision being made. Extensive internal collegial processes are available to the vice chancellor for this purpose. … I have attempted to contact the vice chancellor directly to discuss this matter but have had no response. I am calling on the VC (Paul Wellings) to publicly release the MOU immediately,” union branch president Georgine Clarsen said yesterday.

Last night the union’s NSW branch launched a petition opposing a Ramsay funded-degree at the university.

Attention now moves to the University of Sydney, where a bitter debate on whether management should talk to the Ramsay Centre ran for months this year. Although, as the UoW deal demonstrates, the next (and it seems certain there will be a next) negotiation may be underway elsewhere.

Enough already

Despite signing-off for Christmas on Friday the news gods had other ideas for CMM but today’s is absolutely the last issue for the year. Back January 15.