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Australia Research could take ‘decades to recover' after budget overlooks universities

14:05  12 may  2021
14:05  12 may  2021 Source:   smh.com.au

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Universities are warning Australia is at risk of losing critical research capacity after they were overlooked in the federal government's spending-led recovery budget, despite new expectations borders will remain closed until mid-2022.

Universities warn with international students shut out from the country for another year, research programs are at risk and will be very hard to rebuild. © AAP Universities warn with international students shut out from the country for another year, research programs are at risk and will be very hard to rebuild.

The sector's hopes of an extension of last year's $1 billion research funding lifeline to offset the declines in international student fee revenue were dashed on Tuesday night, with universities one of the few areas to miss out on the Commonwealth's cash splash.

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Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidtsaid the surprise revelation in Tuesday's budget that international students would be shut out from the country for another year would imperil research programs unless the government stepped in.

"I am worried that we are going to lose huge capacity in the research sector that will take decades to recover. Once you let us destroy ourselves because of lack of funding, then the damage is done," Professor Schmidt said.

He said the ANU was the "canary in the coalmine" for other universities, as it had already moved to scale back its reliance on international student fees before the pandemic hit, while other universities would feel the brunt of reduced numbers this year.

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"Other parts of the sector are going to be in wholesale freefall, they're more exposed than we are and it will be catastrophic for the research university sector especially," he said.

University of Sydney professor Duncan Ivison, deputy vice-chancellor for research, said the university was already beginning to reassess the scale of its research output.

"We face the same problems that we faced in 2020, so it was disappointing that research funding support wasn't extended for 2021 in the budget," Professor Ivison said.

"My biggest concern is just the long-term viability of research endeavours as a sector because once it goes it's very hard to get back. You can't just turn research on and off like a tap."

"Given the lack of clarity about research funding for the future, we're starting to ask quite difficult questions about the extent to which we can continue to conduct the range of the research we do now at Sydney."

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Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge said the government was providing $20.4 billion in funding to the higher education sector this year, which included the $1 billion in the October budget for research.

"It's important to note Australia's universities remain relatively financially healthy, with many reporting surpluses in 2020," Mr Tudge said.

The budget revealed the federal government now expects permanent migrants and international students to begin gradually returning from mid-2022 — a year later than it had forecast in the October budget — with small pilot programs for students expected to commence later this year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed universities' over-reliance on international students to prop up their operating revenues and cross-subsidise research, with most institutions forced to embark on cost-saving measures last year including pausing infrastructure spending and cutting jobs.

Some universities have defied their own dire financial predictions, including Monash and Melbourne University, to post surpluses last year, while others reported smaller than expected losses, such as the University of Sydney which had a $2.2 million deficit. The ANU, RMIT, Swinburne and La Trobe University also posted losses.

But the latest federal government data shows there were 43,000 fewer international students enrolled in February compared with the same time last year, indicating universities face a major challenge in recruiting new overseas students while borders remain closed.

Labor education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek said the government had failed universities in the budget.

"Scott Morrison wants the economic benefit of Australia's brilliant university researchers, but he's not prepared to protect their jobs," Ms Plibersek said.

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