Australia’s leading scientists respond to Universities Accord interim report

The Australian Academy of Science welcomes the Australian Universities Accord interim report and thanks the panel, including the chair Professor Mary O’Kane, for their diligent work.

The ambition inherent in this report is vast. The future it charts is one where we move from a mass university system to a universal tertiary education system-just as we have a universal school education system and are charting a path towards universal childcare.

To tackle our shared challenges, we need to consider innovative solutions that move beyond past debates and that challenge the status quo. The Academy is pleased that the panel and the Education Minister are open to rethinking the current funding system, which can discourage universities from offering STEM undergraduate courses.

While the report recognises the inherent instability in our broken system for funding university research, the proposed directions are limited. Proposals for increased investment in the Australian Research Council, renewing NCRIS, and increasing PhD stipend rates are useful.

However, they do not address the fundamentals-the inherent instability of asking universities to rely on international and domestic student fee revenue to fund Australia’s research base.

Australia desperately needs a holistic review of the fundamentals that underpin the science and research system. Universities are a critically important part of Australia’s research ecosystem, but only a part.

In an era where the Australian Government’s investment in science, research and innovation is the lowest on record at 0.49% of GDP, these recommendations will fail to shift the dial or even offer a pathway to reverse this concerning decline.

Australian science needs real policy reform to ensure that we maintain and grow essential national capabilities to address the challenges of a perilous world-from pandemic preparedness to natural climate-induced disasters, to managing geopolitical instability.

Reform is needed that charts a clearer vision for the role that universities play in the Australian and global knowledge system and how university research can boost productivity growth.

Acknowledging that there is ongoing work within the government to modernise policy settings for the science system, Australia still lacks a whole-of-government and society plan to improve Australia’s record-low level of research and development investment.

The Academy continues to call for an independent review of the entire science and research system and looks forward to working with the government and the Universities Accord panel to create a modern research enterprise able to support and advance science in Australia and, in doing so, support our economy and wellbeing.

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