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Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Page: 12456

Mr SYMON (10:25 AM) —I would like to acknowledge the member for Tangney and his remarks on the report Building Australia’s research capacity. It was certainly a great experience to go through and, at the end of it, we have come out with what I think is a really good document. As a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Innovation I would like to take this opportunity to commend the report and the work that has been done by all involved, especially the chair of the committee, the member for Calwell, and her great work in leading this inquiry and making sure we did not go too far off track. But I also appreciate the large amounts of work done by other members of the committee from both sides of the House. And of course I have to thank the committee secretariat—it is nice to see them here today for this—particularly Russell Chafer, Anthony Overs and Natalya Wells for their work on the ground and the behind-the-scenes jobs that they did that made our task a pleasure to attend to.

In the course of the inquiry we heard from 64 witnesses, we went to 14 public hearings across Australia and 106 submissions came in from interested parties. A lot of those were quite large and they took a lot of reading, but they were all worth while. We also received six supplementary submissions and 13 exhibits to the inquiry. At the end of all of that, we have come out with the report, which contains a list of 38 recommendations. I will not go over each and every one of those, although I might like to, but in the time I have I will settle on a few and I will leave some of the subjects to others who are also going to speak on this report.

To me, the main recommendation in the report that should really be noted was recommendation 2, which stated:

The Committee recommends that the Australian Government increase funding for research and development by raising incrementally the Gross Expenditure on Research and Development as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product over a ten year period until it equals the [OECD] average.

I believe that this recommendation should be considered the most serious recommendation in light of the evidence produced to the inquiry. We heard from Universities Australia, in their submission to the inquiry, that gross expenditure on research and development as a percentage of GDP in Australia stands at 1.76 per cent, well below the OECD average of 2.26 per cent. In percentage terms that probably does not sound like a great difference but, when you look at it in dollar terms, they estimate it is around $5 billion a year. And that is not just $5 billion this year or $5 billion next year; it is $5 billion every year—past, present and, if we do not change it, future. If we allow that gap to remain, Australia will be hoping that someone else in the rest of the world does our job in research and development for us. This submission went on to note that government contribution to research funding has diminished from 76½ per cent in 1978-79 to just 41.4 per cent in 2004-05. The University of South Australia suggested that Australia should set a target of three per cent of GDP for investment in R&D, following the European Union’s Lisbon summit target agreed to by the EU in March 2000.

We also heard from witnesses in public hearings and through many submissions of the need for an increase in funding of the Research Training Scheme to cover the full cost of each higher degree by research program at Australian universities. This is picked up in recommendation 4 of the report. The Group of Eight submission on this topic explained that government funding rates for HDR student training bear no relation to actual costs of providing services. They went through an extensive list of things that are provided to students in the program that are not funded under the RTS. They were not the only ones. There was a stack of submissions from various universities and institutions on this, including: Southern Cross University, the Australian Council of Deans of Science, James Cook University, the Australian National University, the University of New South Wales, the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, Murdoch University, the National Tertiary Education Union, the University of Melbourne, Research Australia, Deakin University, the University of the Sunshine Coast, the University of Queensland and the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations. I apologise if I have missed any off that list, but it was a very popular subject. Recommendation 6 deals with the way the RTS payments are made and the problems caused by holding half of these funds until student completion.

Probably more than any other topic in the inquiry, we heard evidence from many groups and individuals about the inadequacies of the current Australian postgraduate award, or APA, stipends. We heard from the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations that the APA has not kept pace with living costs and is now projected to fall below the poverty line for single individuals by the end of this year. It already fell well below the poverty line for those students with families many years ago. Queensland University of Technology told us the value of the APA is uncompetitive in the marketplace for talent. Quite simply, they put it to us that, if someone is bright and has a good future, they will probably go where the dollars are, and the universities just do not have those dollars in this scheme to get this sort of talent in their door. Literally dozens of other submissions also called for an increase in the APA. If my memory serves me correctly, I did not hear of or see one submission that said the current level of the APA was adequate—not one.

The committee also heard a great deal of evidence that the duration of the APA was too short in many cases. When I looked at it through the committee hearings, seeing that RTS funding applied for four years but the maximum duration of the APA was three years with a six-month extension really showed that there was an omission. When undertaking research, there is a four-year funding block grant through the RTS to the institution but not to the student. The problems that came about when the funding for the student ran out while they were still at the university were explained to us by quite a few witnesses who came in and spoke about being on a stipend one week and, the next week, having to go out and find part-time work whilst trying to complete their studies—the sharp end of their studies, I might add. These concerns that were raised are reflected in recommendation 15—that the Australian postgraduate award stipend values be increased by 50 per cent—and recommendation 16, where the committee recommends that the APA stipend be fully indexed to CPI, which is something that has not happened in recent times. Of course, that means it is worth less in real terms every year.

Whilst on the subject of APAs, I should also note the committee received many submissions regarding the taxation of part-time APAs. It strikes me as quite strange that it appears the government is giving with one hand but then taking away with the other. A lot of students do not have a choice when it comes to full-time study. They might have family responsibilities. They might have other things happening in their lives that do not allow them to go and study full time but that do not stop them from trying to pursue study part time. But, if they are taxed differently to someone who is studying the same subject full time, there is certainly an inequity there and I think it is a disincentive if we are trying to increase the number of people that we get into research training. So the report deals with that issue at recommendation 20.

The committee also received many submissions regarding the lack of value placed on research as a career in Australia. The report notes:

The three major impediments to attracting researchers to academic careers are the scarcity of opportunities, lack of job security, and uncompetitive salaries.

There seems to be a gap when it comes to early-career researchers, and recommendation 34 of the report addresses this issue.

There are many other areas of this report I would like to comment on, but my time for this is limited. I would certainly recommend that anyone with an interest in higher education or research and development read this report. This is an area of education that has been neglected for far too long, and I am very pleased to have played a part in the development of this excellent report. I commend this committee report, Building Australia’s research capacity, to the House.