It was already known that the Abbott government had effectively forced Australian universities into supporting its higher education reform package, at the heart of which is university fee deregulation. Australian governments are notorious for underfunding higher education, which nevertheless earns a return of $6 for every public dollar invested: as a proportion of GDP, Australia invests less in higher education than New Zealand, Canada, most of Europe and the USA. Realistic about their prospects for future funding increases, the universities had to support the government’s attempt to raise students’ fees.
What most didn’t know until last week was that the Abbott government is also trying to force Australia’s scientific research community to support fee deregulation. Christopher Pyne has sought to tie the $150 million of funding to the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS), announced during last year’s budget, to the passage of his higher education reform bill. The research community understood that the $150 million was all but guaranteed. There is now every prospect that it will fail to materialise if, as is expected, the Senate blocks the fee deregulation bill again.
And if that happens, there are 27 major research facilities across the country that will effectively have no funding after June this year. Hundreds if not thousands of postgraduate and early career researchers depend on the NCRIS – which facilitates research partnerships between industry, government and universities – for their positions, and there are fears many of them will have to seek work overseas. Scientists attended a Senate estimates hearing on Friday to make their case for funding certainty. This is not the first time the government has sought to effectively blackmail researchers into supporting its policy agenda in another area: the new $20 billion medical research fund was initially contingent upon the GP co-payment passing the Senate.
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