Dou­ble whammy: see­saw fund­ing leaves Aus­tralian re­search ‘in cri­sis’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - [email protected]­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

The lat­est cuts to re­search will be a “dou­ble whammy” for Aus­tralian uni­ver­si­ties, re­duc­ing their abil­ity to run lab­o­ra­to­ries or pay tech­ni­cal staff just as they gear up for a wind­fall in project fund­ing, a sec­tor leader has warned.

Ni­cholas Fisk, deputy vicechan­cel­lor (re­search) at the Univer­sity of New South Wales, said that the freez­ing of re­search sup­port fund­ing for four years had come at the worst pos­si­ble junc­ture. While it would present prob­lems at any time, its emer­gence now – as uni­ver­si­ties an­tic­i­pated ma­jor dis­burse­ments from the Med­i­cal Re­search Fu­ture Fund – would pre­cip­i­tate a “real cri­sis”.

The MRFF is sup­ported by both ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties and will have a pro­jected A$20 bil­lion (£11.4 bil­lion) at its dis­posal when it is fully funded in 2020-21. Pro­fes­sor Fisk said it would be the world’s largest sov­er­eign fu­ture fund of its kind, in ef­fect dou­bling Aus­tralia’s in­vest­ment in med­i­cal re­search.

But be­cause it does not in­clude pro­vi­sions for in­di­rect costs, such as power, con­sum­ables and tech­ni­cians’ salaries, it will force uni­ver­si­ties to dig deeper into their own re­serves to meet these ex­penses.

For ev­ery dol­lar in re­search project fund­ing, Pro­fes­sor Fisk said, uni­ver­si­ties needed an­other 85 cents to cover the in­di­rect costs. But they re­ceived only about 25 cents from the gov­ern­ment – and once the MRFF starts op­er­at­ing fully, that fig­ure will sink fur­ther.

“The more suc­cess­ful we are, the more we’re pe­nalised and the more money we have to find,” Pro­fes­sor Fisk said. “Last year we got ham­mered with a fund­ing freeze in ed­u­ca­tion, and again this has come just be­fore Christ­mas when there’s lit­tle time for push­back.

“We’ve had a se­ries of min­is­ters who don’t seem to be pri­ori­tis­ing the health of the sec­tor. They don’t get the mes­sage about the re­turn to the econ­omy from re­search.”

The Group of Eight uni­ver­si­ties said the A$329 mil­lion cut­back, out­lined in the gov­ern­ment’s bud­get up­date, was un­con­scionable. “It to­tally un­der­mines Aus­tralian re­search and specif­i­cally ini­tia­tives such as the MRFF,” said chief ex­ec­u­tive Vicki Thom­son.

“In a bud­get that we are told is head­ing for sur­plus, the big­gest de­crease is to re­search block grants. It sends a dread­ful mes­sage to the in­ter­na­tional re­search and in­vest­ment com­mu­ni­ties.”

Ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter Dan Te­han said uni­ver­si­ties would re­ceive A$1.9 bil­lion in re­search fund­ing next year. “The gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues to sup­port world-class re­search and re­searchers, pro­vid­ing record fund­ing to uni­ver­si­ties,” he said.

But Grif­fith Univer­sity pol­icy spe­cial­ist Tony Sheil said it was “con­tra­dic­tory” for the gov­ern­ment to ex­pand one stream of re­search fund­ing while re­duc­ing an­other. “It’s dif­fi­cult for the univer­sity sec­tor to de­ter­mine the gov­ern­ment’s strat­egy,” he said.

Mr Sheil blamed a dis­con­nect be­tween the health port­fo­lio’s ad­min­is­tra­tion of the MRFF and the ed­u­ca­tion de­part­ment’s han­dling of re­search. He said that uni­ver­si­ties would have to use their block grants spar­ingly, and look to other av­enues of fund­ing to sup­port their re­search.

“There’s never been a more im­por­tant time for uni­ver­si­ties to look at our sur­pluses and con­sider how we in­vest in our own de­vel­op­ment, be­cause we won’t get there on gov­ern­ment fund­ing alone.”

Pro­fes­sor Fisk said the cuts to re­search block grants were baf­fling, given that a par­lia­men­tary re­view had found that they were al­ready in­ad­e­quate.

He said the cuts would hit hard­est in two to three years, cost­ing his univer­sity A$30 mil­lion and “about 70 staff”.

Un­bal­anced ‘in a bud­get that we are told is head­ing for sur­plus, the big­gest de­crease is to re­search block grants. It sends a dread­ful mes­sage’

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