Strong election budget but focus on higher education still lacking

A strong economic recovery driven by low unemployment and high commodity prices has paved the way for a suite of ambitious budget measures announced on Tuesday evening by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

These include the expected reduction in fuel excise and one-off payments to ease the cost of living pressures, as well as a number of investments in training (particularly in vocational skills and aged care), infrastructure and new and enhanced cyber defence capability.

There are also a number of positive social measures outlined including changes to parental leave to provide more flexibility to parents (and more paid leave for single parents), as well as additional investments in measures to reduce violence against women and children.

While the budget does not particularly focus on the higher education or research sectors, the overall positive outlook has allowed for increased indexation to allocations over the forward estimates for both university and research council funding. This is most notable in allocations to the Australian Research Council, with an increase of over 10% in funding for the Discovery and Linkage programs in 2024, compared to the forecasts of last year’s budget, and smaller increases of 3% and 7% over the next two years.

It was also pleasing to see an allocation of $5.3 million over two years for to support the provision of advice from Academies and other organisations through the National Science and Technology Council along with the PM’s Prizes for Science.

Of course, challenges still remain. The changes to the ARC, including an increased focus on commercial outcomes and alignment of at least 60% of the Linkage program funding to national manufacturing priorities remain. And while stable funding for universities is positive, systemic challenges in the funding of undergraduate education and the full costs of research remain.

Overall, the budget paints a picture of a strong economic recovery from a global pandemic that should provide good opportunities for a new or returned government to invest in a sustainable and equitable future for Australia.