Unis and union unimpressed with election campaign

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

University groups have mixed reviews of the 2022 election campaign, with some seeing promise in commercialisation and tech policies from major parties, and others lamenting the lack of focus on the wider higher education sector and the role it plays.

The university researchers’ union reserved its disappointment for the incumbent, saying the Morrison Government had “waged a war against higher education”.

Melbourne University

National Tertiary Education Union president Dr Alison Barnes blasted the Morrison Government’s treatment of the sector in its term, pointing to the exclusion of universities from JobKeeper, interference in grant recommendations, cuts to research and per student funding, and a “failed” casual conversion scheme driving insecure work.

“If an Albanese government is elected, we look forward to working with the new Minister for Education on undoing the damage of Coalition’s attacks on public higher education,” Dr Barnes told InnovationAus.com.

This would include a push to adopt recommendations from the recent Labor-led Senate inquiry into job security, which include a national higher education funding strategy, a system of casual and fixed-term conversion better suited to the higher education sector and improved rights of entry for all registered trade unions, Dr Barnes said.

The NTEU would also hope to work with the Greens on pursuing their policies of free higher education, wiping out student debt and better pay and conditions for all educators, should the party hold the balance of power.

“Irrespective of who’s in charge, the higher education and research sector’s over-reliance on insecure employment, rising student fees and debt, and decline for basic research that has occurred under the current government desperately needs to be addressed,” Dr Barnes said.

Group of Eight (Go8) chief executive Vicki Thomson said the importance of universities to Australia’s economic prosperity and social wellbeing had “largely been ignored throughout the campaign”.

“Higher education and university research has not featured significantly in policy commitments from either major party during the campaign, however an incoming Government must put universities front and centre of Government strategy to meet the challenges that lie ahead,” Ms Vicki Thomson said.

Ms Thomson told InnovationAus.com an incoming government will need to address Australia’s skills shortages in key areas like engineering, health, AI and cybersecurity with urgency, and with specific commitments on engineering and medical students. The G08 is calling for a doubling of the supply of domestically educated engineers for nation building projects and Increasing Commonwealth supported places for medical students by at least 1000 over four years.

The university group, whose members traditionally accounted for most of Australia’s university-based research, is also calling for review of the research funding model and a new holistic approach to policy.

“The Go8 has recommended that an incoming government adopt a Sovereign Capability Charter to ensure essential current and future skills, supply chains and research capacity are accounted for as a matter of course,” Ms Thomson said.

“The success of the major projects Australia needs will only be achieved by working hand in hand with the nation’s research-intensive universities.”

Australian Technology Network of Universities executive director Luke Sheehy was more positive about the elevation of research and development into the national conversation over recent years and in the election campaign.

“It’s a recognition of the maturity of Australia’s tech industry – both parties understand the key role of universities in this ecosystem, including workforce as well as R&D,” he told InnovationAus.com.

The group of technology and impact focused universities have snagged four of the six Trailblazer university commercialisation hubs that are a key part of the Coalition’s $2 billion research commercialisation package announced in February.

Mr Sheehy welcomed the package and Labor’s bipartisan support for it, but like science groups is conscience it hasn’t been accompanied with a discovery research package.

“This bipartisan commitment to commercialisation shouldn’t come at the expense of discovery research,” Mr Sheehy said.

“Neither party has announced a comprehensive university research policy, but we will continue pushing for this and are glad to see Labor targeting R&D spending to 3 per cent of GDP.”

Mr Sheehy said both parties commitments on growing tech jobs had been important steps, as is Labor’s Startup Year plan to create hundreds of new innovative companies and the party’s $15 billion National Reconstruction fund, which includes a $1 billion carve out for critical technologies.

“It’s great to see an appreciation of the scale of investment needed in the Australian tech sector,” Mr Sheey said.

“Overall, it’s been a competitive but pretty evenly split offering from the major parties, but I’m hopeful Labor will look at the issue of the technology passport too and match or do better on the Coalition’s $5m funding commitment.”

Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said the peak group is looking  forward to working with whoever should form government “to make sure our universities are equipped to build the workforce and generate the bright ideas we need – now and into the future”.

“To maximise our contribution to the nation, we need to ensure we have a sustainable research policy and funding system, more effective incentives for research commercialisation and greater access to university education for Australians regardless of their geographic location and stage of life,” she said.

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