Universities fear freeze on grants

THE university sector has hit out at "ever-diminishing budget certainty" and fears a Commonwealth freeze on grants for higher education in the lead-up to the Federal Government's Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook.

Higher education group Universities Australia voiced its concerns about the sector's ability to plan and invest, on Wednesday, with doubt plaguing the voracity of the Federal Government's forward estimates.

Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson said a "short-term, stop-go approach to funding and public investment" was becoming an increasingly alarming feature of the modern budget process.

As the government continues to look for savings, in the lead-up to the release of the MYEFO, Ms Robinson said the stop-go approach was also "seriously eroding confidence in the policy-making process".

"Clearly, universities are worried about this particular MYEFO process, but there is a deeper issue around the recent and concerning trend towards ever diminishing budget certainty," she said.

"Unfortunately, forward estimates are becoming progressively meaningless and funding predictability a thing of the past."

Ms Robinson, as CEO of UA, represents 39 Australian universities.

As part of the traditional budget process, lobbyists and interest groups usually get one chance to pitch their ideas for funding allocation to the government, early each calendar, in the lead-up to budget negotiations.

But Ms Robinson said this practice was now changing, putting everything up for grabs not just during budget submission periods, but also every six months through the MYEFO.

"Universities, like the rest of the economy, understand that public budgets are tight." she said.

"Surely though, it is the responsibility of governments to plan for the longer term and ensure a greater level of budget equilibrium can be achieved."

Ms Robinson said universities needed long lead times for budgets, to ensure higher education centres had certainty for future investments.

During Senate estimates this week, numerous budgetary freezes were revealed across many sectors, including a $150 million "pause" on Cooperative Research Centres revealed on Wednesday.

"Unfortunately, no matter the outcome from MYEFO, the freeze is already causing damage as universities move to backtrack on recruitment and investment commitments that they can no longer afford," Ms Robinson said.

"By freezing grants, and having the spectre of entire programs being cut, the government is sending the worrying message that you cannot trust its announcements to deliver what is promised."

Response was sought from the Treasurer's office, but has not yet been received. 

Topics:  federal government, grants, univeristy



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