Funding cuts threaten vital research

Universities are cutting jobs and courses due to massive funding shortfalls, but crucial research is also under threat.

The Age reports that research on cures for heart disease, stroke, cancer, brain injury and motor neurone disease is being paused or cancelled, and key researchers are losing their jobs.

The Guardian reports that hundreds of courses are being cut across Australia as lost revenue and funding cuts “devastate” higher education.

“There just isn’t enough funding to go around,” said Paul Young, who is leading a team of scientists trying to create a COVID-19 vaccine at the University of Queensland.

Professor Grant Drummond, head of La Trobe University’s department of physiology, anatomy and microbiology, told Nine he felt betrayed.

“You devote your life to something that’s not political, trying to improve the health of society. And it just feels like the government has turned their back on universities, on all the research I’ve been working towards for 25 years.”

Professor Claudine Bonder, from the Centre for Cancer Biology at the University of South Australia, told the ABC: “Research is an expensive exercise and only through new developments can we obtain the new treatments that we’re trying to find.”

In a pre-budget submission, Universities Australia estimated that $3.5 billion, or more than one quarter of university research, is under threat this year because borders have been closed and the sector is reliant on international students and the fees they pay. The sector could lose $16 billion in revenue over the next four years.

Bloomberg reports that foreign students make up over a quarter of enrolments in Australia – more than four times the OECD average – and income from them up to one-third of Australia’s research output.

“It’s an increasingly competitive market, and there’s no guarantee numbers will bounce back when borders are reopened.”

Up to 20,000 university jobs are expected to be lost, nearly 10 per cent of the sector’s full-time workforce.

The Australian Academy of Science recently labelled Australia’s system of competing for funding “broken”.

Associate Professor Darren Saunders worked on finding cures for breast, pancreatic and prostate cancer, and motor neurone disease. He left the University of NSW at the end of August.

“It’s carnage. I feel good about getting out,” the Eureka prize-winning cancer biologist said.

“The morale, it’s rock bottom. I have not seen morale like this in my whole career. Most people are very nervous, upset, downbeat.”

Monash University announced 277 voluntary redundancies, cut 477 casual staff, and announced plans to shut a workshop that custom builds scientific equipment vital to research. Leading academics claim the facility is integral to more than $41 million of research, including analysis of brain injury and the connection between depression, sleep, and PTSD.

Economist Liam Lenten, who was working on anti-doping research with the International Olympic Committee, was one of 239 redundancies at La Trobe University.

“It’s toxic. Pretty dismal morale,” he said. “For the foreseeable future, there is not going to be much scope for scientific research.”

At Sydney’s Macquarie University, maths and science degrees face the axe, as well as more than half the current majors offered in arts.

And though the pandemic has exacerbated the problem, especially since no public university has qualified for JobKeeper payments, experts say underlying issues predate the virus.

“COVID-19 has simply accelerated a crisis in university funding that was always coming,” wrote Professor of Economics Richard Holden for The Conversation.

“The (university) sector has many of the downsides but none of the benefits of market competition. They are not in control of their own destiny.

“The funding universities receive for domestic undergraduates is insufficient to provide them a world-class education. Research is also underfunded. This has left universities with no choice but to enrol large numbers of foreign students, paying market prices for their education.”

Prof. Holden says there is a pressing need for more significant reforms to funding. He says domestic students must pay more for their degrees, research must be funded properly by linking more closely with industry, and universities must specialise.

“Not every institution needs to be doing research in particle physics, for example. Indeed, not every university needs to be doing research at all.

“Universities focusing more on their comparative advantage, in research or teaching, would enable research dollars to be better targeted.”

Are we too reliant on foreign students to fund research that is critical to medical advances?

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Written by Will Brodie

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