Federal "innovation strategy"
Business benefits, but students, uni employees and research bodies lose
by Peter Mac Prime Minister John Howard last week revealed part of his real agenda for higher education and research in Australia. Speaking in support of his Government's new $2.9 billion research and higher education strategy "Backing Australia's Ability", he acknowledged grudgingly that salary levels had an impact on the "brain drain" of Australia's talent, but then announced proudly that the Government had "offered the universities more money if they restructure their industrial relations arrangements". Howard implied that this would reduce the brain drain. Under the scheme, however, universities would only receive extra funding if they forced their employees onto individual work contracts, which in turn would lead to overall reductions in employees' salaries and entitlements and would make employment in Australian universities even less attractive. The strategy is dominated by the Government's requirements for deregulation of wage and salary levels, and for the commercialisation of university operations. The Chief Scientist advising the government committee which was set up to implement the higher education package, Dr Robin Batterham, enthusiastically supported the Government's proposals, declaring that it was "not just about making more Australian research grants, but also about links to research training, undergraduate teaching and commercialisation." He noted that the commercialisation of government-funded research needed even greater attention. The National Union of Students rightly criticised the scheme, saying it would not improve the quality of student education and that it failed to address the problem of universities' operating grants and day-to day operations. The strategy for the first time extends the HECS scheme to postgraduates, but does not modify the fees themselves. The Australian Academy of Humanities also stated that implementation of the program, which ties the provision of university grants to extra places in science, mathematics and computer studies, would lead to a fundamental shift in university life at the expense of the humanities. Australia's major government research bodies are not likely to benefit from the scheme. Organisations such as the CSIRO and the Australian Institute of Marine Science are effectively barred from receiving part of the research grants, because of the requirement that they must sacrifice their existing research grants in order to qualify for the new innovation strategy ones. In stipulating this requirement, Dr Batterham declared that: "More competition rather than less for extra funding must be in innovation's best interests." The CSIRO's Chief Executive, Geoff Garrett, stated, however, that "... we will be unlikely to ... sacrifice research money (in order) to be able to compete for a relatively small increment back."