Universities tell government they are key to the economic recovery

3 June 2022

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Tim Dodd

With virtually no new money for higher education in this year’s federal budget, universities responded by offering a reminder that their teaching and research is key to Australia’s economic recovery.

Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said it was good to see the budget “invest in drivers of growth, balancing the need to grow the economy with fiscal discipline.”

“The university sector is pivotal to Australia’s productivity and central to a modern, future-proof economy,” she said.

“Universities help meet the increasing demand for highly skilled people and conduct the research that underpins Australia’s prosperity, competitiveness and security.

“We need to lock in Australia’s enviable economic position and outlook to build resilience for our future. As a valuable national asset, our universities are ready to play their part.”

Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Group of Eight research-intensive universities, said that said almost all the major initiatives announced in the budget would require robust and well-funded universities to educate the graduates who will be required.

She said that even though, at first glance, the budget overlooked universities, it relied on tertiary education provided by universities and TAFEs for its success.

“It is our graduates and our research and innovation which will, for example, ensure the Hells Gate dam is delivered for Queensland, or that AUKUS becomes a reality,” Ms Thomson said.

The biggest item impacting universities mentioned in the budget is the $2.2bn university research commercialisation plan announced in February. However the budget did not assign any new money to the plan, saying that part of the money had already been provided and part would come from the existing resources of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

Luke Sheehy, executive director of the Australian Technology Network of Universities, welcomed the investment in research commercialisation, but said that Australia “can’t have a flourishing innovation economy without a secure pipeline of discovery research at our universities.”

He also welcomed the extra $1.3bn announced in the budget for the Medical Research Future Fund, but said the ATN universities were “concerned that the government has left behind other critically important areas like science and technology that are integral in driving a modern and prosperous economy”.

“With an overall decline in higher education funding in real terms, this budget places our capacity for a hi-tech, innovative and entrepreneurial Australia at risk,” Mr Sheehy said.

Ms Thomson said the Go8 universities were proposing that, following the election, the incoming government should adopt a sovereign capability charter to ensure that skills, supply chains and research capacity are accounted for before the public announcement of new infrastructure projects. “As industry well knows, Australia is already facing skills shortages in a number of areas central to the government’s growth agenda: engineering, professional services, health, AI, cybersecurity, logistics and procurement,” she said.

Scientists’ group Science & Technology Australia said it welcomed the investments in research commercialisation but urged “deeper investment in discovery science to secure our innovation pipeline for decades and Australia’s long-term safety and prosperity”.

“The next task is to deepen our nation’s investments in essential discovery and blue sky science – to deliver major research breakthroughs that can catapult Australia’s capabilities,” said Science & Technology Australia CEO Misha Schubert.