After all the bluster, the budget largely leaves research and higher education alone

Higher education and research largely escaped the budget cuts. AAP

With its electoral support eroding, the federal government has been careful not to trigger frustration or disappointment in higher education and research.

These have been largely Labor constituencies since Whitlam forty years ago, and for modern Labor almost as traditional as blue-collar unionists.

There were no surprise budget gifts. Deep and long-standing problems of public under-funding - in this education and research are no different to most of the rest of Australia’s public infrastructure - remain unresolved. But the immediate public expectations, which were admittedly low, were all met.

The winners were shaped by the skills shortage emerging in the wake of Mining Boom Mark II, and Labor’s de facto alliance with Independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor.

Higher education outside the big cities did well. The under-funded State/Territory training systems were promised $1.75 billion over five years, though only about half is new money. Enterprise training receives $$359 million over the same period.

There will be a $500 million Education Investment Fund quarantined for rural and regional institutions, including $20 million for seed funding for the development of a multi-partner university campus in the Oakeshott electorate.

Rural and regional institutions receive $100 million via a regional loading on their government grants, in compensation for the extra costs of delivery.

A finer grained formula will be used to calculate the loading based on the Australian Standard Geographical Classification. This was welcomed, though the outcomes are as yet unclear.

Politically, the most important decision was to continue the step-by-step annual implementation of full indexation of government funding, the major outcome from the 2008 Bradley review of higher education. Universities receive 3.8 per cent indexation in 2011-2012, triggering sighs of relief in executive offices. However, the crunch decision on public support will be the government’s response to the Review of Base Funding, which reports at the end of October and is meant to lay the basis for a stable funding system that reflects real costs.

The budget provides for a four per cent growth in student places, consistent with the Bradley review’s recommendation to expand participation, and an extra $400 million was tagged to improved equity and other performance-related objectives.

A further $95 million that Canberra will tag to better teaching quality and learning outcomes has been held back at this stage because the indicators are yet to be finalised. This may sound like an excuse but the reason is genuine. The phase-out of the Australian Learning and Teaching Council will go ahead . The 200 per cent discount for students who pay their tuition contributions upfront, rather than on a deferred basis through taxation, was trimmed back to 10 per cent. The bonus offered for other voluntary repayments was cut from 10 to 5 per cent. These measures are said to save $480 million over four years but this could be offset if the incidence of such payments drops away.

Nothing was said about rescuing the beleaguered international education export sector, which faces a sharp decline in student numbers and revenues, primarily due to the adoption of much tougher restrictions on student visas by the federal Immigration Department (DIAC).

The budget papers forecast that tourism and education exports together would drop by 3.5 per cent in 2011-2012. This is primarily attributed to the high Australian dollar. The government allocated $36 million to implement the recommendations of the Baird Review into international education, for example by providing for new IT-based systems that will manage the refund of student fees when colleges collapse.

Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research Kim Carr generally kept faith with the research communities. The much rumoured $400 million reduction in medical research funding did not eventuate.

Though Carr denied it was ever in prospect, and hinted that the well publicised public protests against the threat of the razor were some kind of Coalition plot, many in medical research believe that the rallies and placards staved off the cuts.

Instead the Cooperative Research Centres program, supporting collaborative research with industry, was reduced by a more modest $33 million over four years. There is a small new program ($9 million) tied to research collaboration with China and a joint fund with India worth $50 million over five years.

These have been paid for by deciding not to renew the International Science Linkage program, which supported collaboration is all countries. There is something of a narrowing of horizons, but more worrying was the decision not to put any new money into the Australian Synchrotron in Clayton.

Though scientists in a range of fields see it as a vital asset the Synchrotron also failed to get budget support from the Victorian government. There is a real threat of closure.