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Thursday, 24 March 1994
Page: 2142

Senator ZAKHAROV (9.46 a.m.) —Mr President, I present the report of the Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training on the organisation and funding of research in higher education, together with the transcript of evidence and submissions received by the committee.

  Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator ZAKHAROV —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the report.

This matter was referred to the committee on 27 May 1993. Since that date we have received more than 170 submissions and held public hearings in six states and territories. In addition, the committee visited several universities and had informal discussions with researchers, students, research pro vice chancellors, unions and the various academies.

  The organisation and funding of research in higher education has been the subject of many inquiries, reviews and reports in recent years. Evidence to this committee largely mirrored the views expressed in these earlier reports.

  Recognition of the quality of research undertaken in the higher education sector was widespread. In several areas, the research places Australia at the forefront of international intellectual endeavour. It also contributes significantly to the quality of life of Australia's citizens.

  But equally widespread was concern about perceived threats to the continued viability of Australia's research effort. Some claim that these threats stem from the increased directing of research towards specified national social and economic goals. Others believe that the threat lies in the poor state of research infrastructure in the universities, and that, without a substantial and immediate increase in funding, the infrastructure will deteriorate dramatically.

  Many of the newer universities have benefited significantly from mechanism B infrastructure funding, and the committee has recommended that mechanism B continue for the 1994-96 triennium. But there has been an exponential increase in the costs of infrastructure which has placed a severe strain on the public funds that are available to universities as a whole. The problem has been compounded by the enormous expansion in the higher education sector. It is not only research, but also teaching which is under considerable pressure.

  The committee spent some time addressing issues arising from the operations of the Australian Research Council. The ARC performs an extremely difficult job with very little support by way of administrative backup, and relies heavily on the goodwill of the research community to carry out the peer assessment of research proposals which is central to the ARC role. We have made several recommendations which should improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the ARC.

  The committee also addressed the question of balance between various areas of research, and examined the links between industry and the universities, and the various programs which have been devised to encourage and support such links. There are several questions which arise concerning the best arrangements for enabling universities to carry out their prime tasks of fundamental research and high level teaching, while also contributing to the development and commercialisation of research results. The committee has explored these matters in some depth and framed recommendations which we believe will assist in achieving that balance.

  I would like to conclude by emphasising the committee's unanimous endorsement of the report's recommendations. Such agreement has been possible because each member of the committee has recognised the value of the universities' efforts in research, in the training of researchers, and in the teaching of undergraduates. We are agreed that our higher education sector must continue to make a major contribution to Australia's economic, social and cultural well-being, and to play an important part in the international research community.

  While acknowledging the legitimate claims of other education sectors on the limited public funding available, the committee concludes that the evidence provided during its inquiry amply justifies additional funds being provided in certain key areas. These funds should be regarded as fundamental investments in a major national resource, namely, the facilities and talent in our universities for high level research and teaching.

  On behalf of the committee, I would like to thank the members of the secretariat for their magnificent effort in enabling this report to be tabled today. I commend the report to the Senate.