University funding shortfalls force cuts to vital research

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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


Total Comments: 6
  1. 0

    But lots of money is spent on sport and the olympics, which a lot of people are not interested in. All the research, as mentioned in this article, is of benefit to every person. I know where I would rather my taxes be spent.

    • 0

      Absolutely agree with you Dog Lover. The millions poured into the Institute of Sport could happily (in my opinion) be diverted to the universities to maintain vital medical research at such a difficult time for the world.

  2. 0

    Let’s hope the budget has included help for the universities as there have been many job losses and no jobkeeper for universities. Education at all levels is vital including TAFE and should always be prioritised. Funds for all courses and research must be continued and reinforced. Fingers crossed.

  3. 0

    Time to break out the Future Fund. Scomo insisted we’re all in this together so time to put the Fund to important areas and not to keeping politicians in the lap of luxury when they retire.

  4. 0

    Apart from the money issue, having more foreign students does not bode well for Australia’s future because unless they stay here, that knowledge and skill goes with them. It’s like we are subsiding everyone else’s future but not our own by offering them tertiary education but making it unaffordable for the average Australian. It makes no sense whatsoever that we would short change our own countries future. I guess that’s the problem with politicians running these things, they have little interest at all, but will only fein interest for their term and rarely think about future impacts unless of course it impacts their benefits and perks.

  5. 0

    I also heard that University Fees are being increased so much that potential students are going to incur about double HECS debts. A % of the students could be involved in medical research later. Some practising Medical Professionals are also involved in research, not just treating patients.
    Decreasing numbers of staff at Uni & Tafe and doubling HECS debt is a huge disaster.
    It will also cause a huge loss of medical professionals of all types including Nurses
    even more in rural areas.



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