The Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia has welcomed Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ 2024-25 Federal Budget, in particular the investment of $1.1 billion over five years in the first stage of Universities Accord reforms, and the commitment to undertake a comprehensive review of Australia’s R&D system.

The review is described in the budget papers as “an independent, strategic examination of research to provide an evidence-based assessment of how Australia can maximise its overall Research and Development competitiveness for the future.” The Academy and other sector organisations have been urging Government to undertake such a review in order to synthesise findings and recommendations from reviews of the ARC and the Universities Accord, and to begin mapping out a pathway to lift Australia’s investment in R&D from a dismal and declining 1.68% of GDP towards the ALP’s stated aspiration of 3%; a figure that would put Australia into the top quarter of OECD nations.

More generally, funding for research through the Research Support Program, the Research Training Program and the Australian Research Council is stable, with projected annual growth in ARC grant averaging 5% p.a. across the forward estimates. Health and medical research fares somewhat better, with pre-budget announcements of $1.4b from the Medical Research Future Fund in low survival cancers, reducing health inequalities, women’s health, chronic pain, and alcohol and other drug treatments.

Other measures of relevance to the higher education sector include changes to the indexing of HECS-HELP loans, the establishment of the Australian Tertiary Education Commission, $27.7 million for VET/HE pathways, and the introduction of caps on international student numbers; something that may seriously impact universities’ discretionary research funding. More significantly, the budget outlined a long-term ambition to double student numbers by 2050, commencing with funding for fee-free preparatory courses and a needs-based model for equity students from 2026.

Looking more broadly, the Budget included headline investments in cost-of-living relief, schools funding, support for women experiencing family and domestic violence, increased salaries for aged care workers, and industry programs under the Future Made in Australia initiative. Consistent with recommendations in the Academy’s pre-Budget submission, there was also a commitment to increase funding for salaries of early childhood education and care professionals, subject to Fair Work Commission processes currently underway, along with additional funding to support inclusion of children with special needs, and First Nations community-controlled peak bodies to improve early childhood and education outcomes.

There was also welcome additional investment of $29.7 million over three years in child and youth mental health services and a commitment to reporting on the percentage of Australian Government departments and agencies that worked with the Office for Youth and felt supported to engage with young people.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics is a vital part of the research infrastructure ecosystem for many social science disciplines, and the agency received an additional investment of $57.9 million over six years from 2023–24 to upgrade the Labour Force survey and Business Characteristics dataset, and to deliver an enhanced annual General Social Survey to support Measuring What Matters. This was a key recommendation of the Academy’s pre-Budget submission and a welcome increase to vital social data infrastructure.

Despite these welcome investments, the Academy notes serious concerns about the overall budget forecast, with substantial increases in public expenditure over recent years and significant budget deficits over the next decade. Unless the Government is able to reverse this situation and address structural issues in the budget, future generations will potentially have fewer opportunities to enjoy the high-level of public services that Australians take for granted today.