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Thursday, 24 March 1994
Page: 2143

Senator TIERNEY (9.51 a.m.) —I rise to support the remarks made by Senator Zakharov. As she has indicated, this report on the organisation of funding of research in higher education was a unanimous report from both sides of the parliament. I was perhaps just a little disappointed by Senator Zakharov's press release and I hope she has a follow-up press release now that the report is tabled. In this press release she states that the report brings together some of the main themes and sets out a range of recommendations which will enhance the university research environment.

  Of course, the report does far more than that and one of the things that the report reveals is that during the life of this government over the last 11 years, the whole university research and funding situation has been allowed to deteriorate at an alarming rate. Probably the area where this decline and deterioration have been greatest is in support infrastructure in the universities.

  In 1986 before the national unified system was created we had reports stating that university infrastructure had run down to a very alarming level. Of course, since the creation of the Dawkins national unified system, this whole trend has accelerated, because the universities—as everyone is aware—have expanded very rapidly over the last six or seven years, with placements up about 40 per cent.

  Research has increased over this time as well, but what have not increased at a proportional rate are the resources available to support those efforts in both teaching and research. Indeed, what the report highlighted—and what we found everywhere we went around Australia—was the alarming extent of this rundown in infrastructure, and I will give honourable senators one example that perhaps best illustrates that.

  In the quality assessment reports the University of Adelaide came in group one. When we were there, the University of Adelaide highlighted the extent of the rundown in its infrastructure with the story of the Barr Smith Library, which actually excluded for three months people who were not enrolees at that university. The reason why the university did this was that it just did not have the resources in its budget—particularly in its library budget—for the payment of people to re-stack books on shelves. On that basis, for three months, students—and I assume particularly students from the University of South Australia, which is very close by and who used the Barr Smith Library, which is a very good library—were excluded from the library.

  That is third world stuff when it starts to happen in Australian universities and it should ring alarm bells everywhere. For most academics their laboratory is actually the library, particularly in the social sciences and the humanities. We had examples where university departments were told, `You have to cancel three journals this year. It is your choice; we will leave it to you. But you have to cancel three'. The cost of library journals and books is going up faster than the inflation rate, but the resources are not going up to meet it. There is a national crisis in this country in higher education in libraries, but also in other basic research infrastructure.

  Let me read to the chamber what some of the leading academics told us about the state of their infrastructure. A report commissioned by the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee states:

There are few prizes for being second best, for being trained in steam driven technologies in the nuclear age.

When we go around and look at the facilities, as I have at the University of Adelaide, we find academics are struggling to stay in the world lead because they do not have the correct tools or the up-to-date tools to do the research that they need to do. In another group 1 university, the University of Melbourne, Professor Pilbrow in the department of physics said:

. . . our nuts and bolts have run out of thread and we do not have the basic funding to do basic work. We see this to be a fairly immediate impact of the clawback—

of government research funding into the ARC. Professor Gilbert, from the standing committee on research of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, said:

A nation's research basis is like its roads, its bridges, its ports, its airports, its communications and its other infrastructure more generally. Letting it run down amounts to culpable neglect on the part of national decision makers.

This run-down of research infrastructure was addressed by a government commissioned report. It was called the Boston report because the Boston Consulting Group prepared it for NBEET. It documented the extent of this run-down in our research infrastructure and it recommended an immediate injection of funds of $125 million.

  In the last budget we saw the government's response to that report; it was an expenditure of under $5 million across 36 universities. This will do nothing to bring back the system from the brink of collapse and this is why the committee has recommended that the findings of the Boston Consulting Group be implemented.

  There are a number of other things about the research environment that are of great concern. The positive thing we found as we went around was the high-class research work that people were doing. We saw how Australian research can be at the forefront but it is not going to be there if people do not have the proper backing and the proper tools.

  One of the most disturbing things we found relating to that was that when first-class researchers put in projects they not only had inadequate infrastructure to support them, but because of the inadequacy of the funding levels for research in universities they had a very low chance of success. The main mechanism for distributing large research grants in Australia is through the Australian Research Council. The government did not provide additional funding to create all this initially, it actually—and the expression is used in the system—clawed it back. It is called the clawback. It took a proportion of research money from each of the universities and redistributed it on the basis of excellence and national priorities.

  People were broadly happy with that system, but what they are deeply unhappy about is that their chance of success when putting a first-class project to the ARC to be funded has dropped to the alarming level of 19 per cent. That means four out of every five projects get knocked back. We are not saying every project should be funded but we have got a situation where, on a rough rule of thumb, they are saying that 40 per cent deserve funding yet only half that are getting funding.

  This is an incredible waste of resources and talent and the possibilities that come from research in our system. If we knock back projects at that rate it is just so short-sighted. Some of those research projects in the fields across the universities can produce discoveries that not only add to the sum of human happiness—particularly in areas that lead to prevention of disease—but also have the opportunity of creating great wealth for the country. Who would have thought of what would flow from the invention of the microchip at Stanford University. Look at the effect of that on the whole shape of our world and on the shape of technology. Look at the cash flows that have come in from that one small invention.

  In the medical research area we have seen the prevention of polio by the advent of the Salk and Sabin vaccine. That one discovery has saved the medical systems of the world enough money to pay for all the medical research that has ever been done. How many discoveries have we missed in this country because of that sort of short-sightedness? In the moments remaining I would like to say that this report has shown the inadequacies of the system. We really need to have the recommendations implemented. (Time expired)

  (Quorum formed)

  Question resolved in the affirmative.