Education minister moves to end research grant veto powers

Brandon How

Legislation to remove the Education minister’s power to veto Australian Research Council grants has been introduced to Parliament, as the federal government works to implement other recommendations made in a review of the Council earlier this year.

The bill, tabled on Wednesday, will implement six of 10 recommendations made in the ARC Review, which in part sought to “strengthen governance and accountability arrangements”, according to the bill’s explanatory memorandum.

It includes the establishment of an independent ARC Board, which will take responsibility for the approval of grants under the National Competitive Grants Program (NCGP) from the Education minister.

Education minister Jason Clare is expected to consult with Industry and Science minister Ed Husic on selecting board members, according to the explanatory memorandum.

Education minister Jason Clare. Image: ARC

Funding decisions by the ARC board will be guided by “funding rules made by the Minister and after considering advice following expert and peer review processes”.

The appointment of future ARC chief executives and members to the College of Experts will also be overseen by the board, moving the responsibility out of the chief executive’s remit.

In a statement, Mr Clare said that “over the last decade, the ARC has been bedevilled by political interference and ministerial delays”. He later told Parliament that “at least four of my predecessors have interfered on at least six occasions during the former government to upend the independent peer review process”.

“That has made it harder for universities to recruit and retain staff, and it has damaged our international reputation,” Mr Clare said.

“That’s not good for our universities. It’s not good for businesses either who work with our universities.”

The Albanese government has since funded half of the ARC research projects vetoed under former acting Education minister Stuart Robert. The veto was widely criticised and sparked calls for a review of the ARC.

Mr Clare has also reiterated his promise to “end the days of Ministers using the ARC as a political plaything”.

“This legislation will ensure the ARC is set up to meet current and future needs and maintain the trust and confidence of the research sector,” he said.

However, the minister will still be responsible for the approval of financial assistance grants for designated research programs under the NCGP.

The minister will also retain power to block or terminate grants for reasons “relevant to the security, defence or international relations of Australia”, which is consistent with the review’s recommendation.

Responsibility for approving grants for designated programs targeting the development of research capability, as opposed to the grants targeting individual research projects under the NCGP, will also remain with the minister.

The bill also seeks to improve the clarity of the ARC’s purpose and function, as well as reduce the legislative burden and increase flexibility in accounting to support program funding, in line with the ARC review’s recommendations.

The remaining four recommendations from the ARC Review not addressed in the bill do not require legislative change.

The Albanese government agreed or agreed in-principle to the recommendations in August. While Labor was in opposition, a bipartisan Senate committee rejected a bill to remove the Education minister of ARC research funding veto powers.

The review was led by Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Professor Margaret Sheil, La Trobe University senior deputy vice-chancellor Professor Susan Dodds, and then-Science and Technology Australia president Professor Mark Hutchinson.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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