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Tuesday, 23 August 1994
Page: 70

Senator MARGETTS (5.27 p.m.) —by leave—I move:

  That the Senate take note of the document.

The Greens welcome this report of the inquiry entitled The organisation and funding of research in higher education because of perceptions of alarming trends across university research activity—trends such as inadequate research infrastructure, the move to overly commercialise and exploit research findings to the detriment of objective research outcomes, the economic imperative in the choice of funding particular kinds of research and the emerging imbalance between humanities and science research being funded. It was an encouragement that some of these issues would begin to be dealt with at the announcement of the inquiry, which looked at issues such as changes in the pattern of research activity, research infrastructure, concentration of research, maintenance of plurality, links between higher education institutions and industry and the allocation of research related funding.

  The findings of the report are ultimately reasonable. It is a disappointment that many of the recommendations will not be taken up by government. I make some comments about the recommendations that we believe need to be followed through. The recommendation of page 43 that mechanism B infrastructure funding be retained, we believe, is essential for ex-CAEs and the newer, poorer and smaller universities to compete with the big universities, commonly referred to as the `big eight'. It is therefore a disappointment that the government will not be supporting this recommendation because it believes five years is enough time for them to have caught up. The government's response is that it is:

. . . reasonable that former advanced education institutions compete for infrastructure funding on the same terms as all other institutions.

That says it all. We agree that they should compete on the same terms, but they are not yet on the same terms and that is why mechanism B funding needs to be continued for a while longer.

  The biggest proof that former CAEs could not compete was the quality assurance process earlier this year that had an almost perfect correlation between the biggest amounts of research funds and the largest, oldest, richest and more established universities. Five years worth of special funding may improve the bottom denominator position of the ex-CAE's position, but they still cannot compete with institutions that have been around for the best part of this century.

  The Greens, however, endorse the calls of the Senate Standing Committee for Employment, Education and Training for more research infrastructure through a number of recommendations on pages 43, 54 and 68, of which none have been supported by the government. The government is not serious about putting any more funding into infrastructure which is so badly needed by students. It is a poor testimony to the government's commitment in this area when it quotes its own 1987 benchmark figures for research infrastructure and then shrugs off the fact that we have not got enough funding at 1987 levels as `just being an arbitrary benchmark anyway'.

  The Greens welcome the government's move to investigate a further $10 million for a unified national library system and money for the upgrading and extension of AARNet. The Greens are also pleased to see that the government has given in-principle support for a pilot scheme to assist with setting up media to communicate knowledge gained from the humanities and social sciences. Society will be able to learn from such feedback for the growth and wellbeing of the community as individuals and as a cohesive group. Scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs have no shortage of publicity and the public relations machine behind them as they ultimately spell credit for Australians and profits; that is, if they stay in the country.

  Although the government has perhaps acknowledged through supporting this recommendation in principle that humanities and social sciences have a low profile, there is little recognition in its response to the recommendation on page 111 about the imbalances between basic research and strategic research. It is a disappointment, indeed, that the government would not support a basic public funding expenditure rate for basic research. Much of strategic, experimental, developmental and applied research is funded by industry and public funding is needed to maintain levels of basic research expenditure.

  There are other gains to be made by maintaining the level of public funding on research subject categories and types of research. Public funding of research can keep up our knowledge to meet social, humanitarian and environmental ends that would suffer in an allocation of private funding which would favour outcomes and research dominated by economic imperatives. Not only does the government need to make sure that our tertiary research system does not subordinate its social aims to the domination of the market and corporate managerialism, it must also ensure the balance between industry favoured strategic research and basic or pure research. Strategic research may be manipulated by private funding sources also, as outcomes can be biased to meet business needs. I remind honourable senators that private funding does not mean that business ends up paying; it is the taxpayer who ends up paying the majority through tax concessions to business.

  Ultimately, our universities are our biggest employers of researchers and undertake Australia's best quality research. The government's response to the findings and recommendations of the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training do not adequately reflect this perception. In failing to supply adequate resources to facilitate top quality research, the government is not serving students, university staff or society in an effective way.