Education Minister Christopher Pyne has come under fire from key backers of his higher education deregulation plan, with Australia’s peak university body joining a host of research groups in criticising the Minister for funding uncertainty which has left 1,700 science jobs at risk, and allegedly undermined billions of dollars of investment.
In an open letter signed by the heads of 15 university, science and research organisations, the Minister has been warned that funding uncertainty in regards to the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) is already having an impact, and could set research and innovation projects back “by several years”.
The NCRIS provides Commonwealth funding to 27 major research facilities which, according to the open letter, are used by over 35,000 Australian and international researchers.
Funding for the program in the next financial year is tied up in Pyne’s university deregulation legislation which remains stalled in the Senate.
With current funding running out, research and university groups have started to air their concerns.
While peak body Universities Australia has been a vital ally of the government in promoting its plan to uncap student fees, it has added its voice to the growing concern about the future of NCRIS funding, joining the Group of Eight and the Regional Universities Network in signing the letter.
The letter claims that without any funding guarantee for the next year, some NCRIS facilities are already preparing to close.
“The damage to Australia’s domestic and collaborative international research effort that will result from such closures is immense,” it says.
“Continuity and productivity of critical research programs will be set back by several years, and with some innovative Australian companies forced to take their operations offshore, many profitable international research collaborations will cease, and 1,700 highly skilled NCRIS staff could become unemployed.”
Like Universities Australia, the so-called ‘Group of Eight’ have played an active role in promoting Pyne’s deregulation legislation, provoking severe criticism from University of Canberra vice-chancellor Stephen Parker.
In a response to the open letter, Pyne has tried to put blame at the feet of the previous Labor government for failing to provide funding for the future of the NCRIS, as well as the senate for refusing to pass the deregulation legislation.
“As I have made clear on many occasions over many months, if the higher education reforms don’t pass, funds do not exist for NCRIS. The jobs of 1,700 people will be at risk. Australian research will suffer,” he said in a release.
Shadow Minister for Higher Education Kim Carr accused Pyne of holding the funding hostage.
“Make no mistake – the decision to hold NCRIS funding hostage was made by Christopher Pyne, Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott,” he said.
“In January, Christopher Pyne described their decision as ‘a high-stakes game’. The reality is that the Government is playing chicken with the country’s future.”
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