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Thursday, 25 August 1994
Page: 431

Senator TIERNEY (6.51 p.m.) —I rise to speak on this response by the government to a major inquiry of the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training. This inquiry into university research and, indeed, its implications for research generally in this country was very timely. We have one of the poorest records in the OECD countries for research across the board, both private and public.

  It is ironic, in light of Mr Hawke's call several years ago for the clever country, that the government has not put a higher priority on this area. Indeed, the much maligned Barry Jones, who wrote a book called Sleepers, Wake!, was made minister for this area. We all had high hopes that the situation would suddenly be reversed in the early 1980s, that Australia would suddenly increase its research effort and funding for research from the public sector. But, as this particular inquiry has revealed, that was not to be the case.

  I pay tribute to former Senator Sowada from the Australian Democrats, who joined with me in helping set up this inquiry originally. What this inquiry revealed from the 170 submissions we received and from the many days of inquiry right around Australia is that there are serious shortcomings in the funding of research in all its aspect.

  This government has set up an approach where it segments research funding into a whole range of areas. It puts money in through the Australian Research Council; it puts money in through postgraduate awards. The government has cooperative research centres; it has a whole series of other research centres. It has mechanism A, mechanism B and mechanism C funding. What we discovered as we looked at these various mechanisms was that a good case could be made for increasing funding in most areas because they were very much starved of funds. I will give one illustrative example.

  The Australian Research Council's awards for excellent research projects across Australia now has a 20 per cent success rate. That means that 80 per cent of projects put up by academics—and putting up a project takes a great deal of time—are knocked back. We are not saying that all should be accepted and refunded. But, when talking to the universities, we found that the general benchmark should be at least double the current rate.

  Forty per cent of projects were worth funding and would contribute substantially to the research effort in Australia, yet half of those are knocked back. In terms of what those projects could provide, the inventions they might lead to, the new industries they might end up creating and even just pure research and research into areas of interest in the humanities and arts—things that are worth while for the development of culture in its own right—it is a tragedy that these sorts of pieces of research do not go ahead.

  One of the things we discovered was the unfortunate effects on research of the Dawkinsisation of our universities. Mr Dawkins, in his wisdom, decided to ram together a number of institutions, restructure everything and call every institution a university.

Senator Crowley —What percentage of research proposals were approved before the so-called Dawkinsisation?

Senator TIERNEY —The so-called Dawkinsisation effects across caused a decline in a number of very major measures in the university sector—for example, student ratios, the number of tutorials, the amount of money spent on libraries, the amount of money spent on infrastructure per student and the research dollars that academics have a success rate for.

  All the indicators show that, under this government, even though there has been an expansion in the number of students, there has not been a commensurate expansion in resources to support those students or research projects. I thank the minister for raising those points to underline the shortcomings of this government in this area.

  The most glaring negative effects of Dawkinsisation resulted from the incorporation of the old CAE sectors into universities. People who entered jobs for a different purpose were expected overnight to become full university researchers. The effects of this in a number of universities have been quite devastating.

  The government set up some special funding to assist this. Again, it was too little and for too short a time. It established what it calls mechanism B, which was to create funds for five years to help these universities get up to speed. The failure of this policy was starkly revealed by the quality assurance mechanisms when the former CAEs ended up down the bottom of the list and the established, better endowed universities ended up at the top of the list. No-one was surprised by that, but it underlined that more funding should have been given to help these universities establish themselves as proper research institutions.

  Probably one of the greatest shortcomings in research that we discovered when going around the country was in the library infrastructure. A report came out pre-minister Dawkins in 1986, about four years after the present government came into power, that said that the university libraries were in crisis. Since that point, all the indicators show, the situation has deteriorated even further.

  The Boston Consultancy Group, a group established by the government to look into this matter, recommended the expenditure of $120 million extra in research. The minister might recall in the budget how much the government actually did spend—something like $3 million. If that is averaged across the 36 major universities in this country, it will not buy many books.

  The university libraries are now greatly disadvantaged in getting hold of the information they need to feed the academic and research endeavours, not only in books but in electric forms associated with the new developments in technology and the information superhighway, because the funding just is not there to set it up. The government has made a start with the Aarnet network, but it is nowhere near sufficient at this point for this area.

  The area that probably needed further investigation—and we were a little hampered in our study here—was the area of research known as the cooperative research centres. These are actually funded by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and are separate from DEET, which we normally shadow with our committee. There has been great work done with the cooperative research centres, but what came out of the findings was some doubt that the money was always spent properly. Indeed, we had a lot of doubt that industry was really pulling its weight with the cooperative research centres.

  I would like to pay tribute to one cooperative research centre in particular—the Australian Photonics Cooperative Research Centre, which is a very successful consortium of a number of businesses, the University of Sydney, the ANU and the University of Melbourne. It has produced state-of-the-art optic fibre and is now assisting in creating a whole new industry in Australia. I pay particular tribute to that cooperative research centre. Quite a number have been successful, but we are getting the picture that it is a little bit patchy and perhaps there should be a further inquiry into this matter.

  I will conclude by saying that when we spoke to staff and students at the universities right across Australia, we found some very exciting things were happening in research in this country. We have a very high quality academic community. It is a great pity that those people are not funded properly for the work they do. It is false economy not to spend the money in this area.

  If we really want some mainsprings for economic growth, intellectual pursuit or knowledge in its own right, we cannot do better than to put additional funding into research. This government has failed to do so. It is to the great detriment of the future of this nation that this has been the final result of 11 years of Labor government.