Jason Clare outlines Aust Research Council funding review

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

Ministers’ power to veto research funding will be scrutinised as part of an independent inquiry into the role and function of the Australian Research Council, announced by Education minister Jason Clare overnight, as he promised to “reset” the government’s relationship with universities.

The new minister has also committed to fast track the current backlog in student visa processing, work on retaining foreign students in Australia after they complete their study, and committed more than $20 million to boost the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The previous Coalition government faced backlash when then-acting education minister Stuart Robert vetoed funding for six humanities research projects which had been recommended by the Australian Research Council (ARC) through a peer review process.

New Education minister Jason Clare. Image: Twitter

The move – the latest in an increasing use of the controversial veto powers by Coalition ministers – drew fierce criticism from the Australian and international research community.

Labor would later promise it would not block ARC recommendations but stopped short of supporting a Greens bill that would have removed the power altogether.

In an inquiry into the bill, the ARC and Education department also backed the ministerial intervention powers, claiming the veto backlash stemmed from a “communication” problem.

On Wednesday evening, Mr Clare appeared to put removing the power back on the table.

“The delays and the political interference in the way competitive grants operate need to end,” Mr Clare said in an address to the Universities Australia conference on Wednesday night, his first major speech to the sector.

“It damages our international reputation.  It also makes it harder for you to recruit and retain staff.”

While Mr Clare did not address the veto power explicitly, he said he would initiate the independent review of the ARC a Senate committee called for in March. The committee recommended this review include the ARC’s “governance and research funding processes” and the controversial new directions issued to the agency by the former government.

Mr Clare said the Australian Universities Accord Labor took to the election will be a “reset” for the sector and its relationship with government, with the meetings to have a view of establishing a long term bipartisan plan for universities.

“Looking at everything from funding and access, to affordability, transparency, regulation, employment conditions and also how universities and TAFEs and other higher education and vocational education providers and training institutions work together,” Mr Clare said.

A small group of “eminent Australians” will be appointed within months to lead the Accord planning, and a consultation will run for its terms of reference.

In the meantime, more resources have been allocated by the government to address a backlog in visa processing, which universities say is risking foreign student arrivals.

Mr Clare said the Education and Home Affairs departments will work together to address the backlog ahead of the second university semester, with 100 additional staff now working on it.

More equitable access to higher education, noting the enrolment rate of students from low socio-economic backgrounds has not changed significantly in more than a decade.

“Where you live, how much your parents earn, whether you are Indigenous or not, is still a major factor in whether you are a student or a graduate of an Australian university,” Mr Clare said.

“I don’t want us to be a country where your chances in life depend on your postcode, your parents, or the colour of your skin.

“None of us want that. But that’s where we are today.”

The new government will provide $20.5 million over the next four years to expand the work of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education based at Curtin University as a starting point.

Mr Clare urged the sector to work with the government on the reforms and any that will follow, promising a more constructive relationship than his predecessors.

“This is a new government. And with it comes a new opportunity,” he said.

“A chance to do things differently. To reset. To rebuild. And reform.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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