Labor urged to increase uni research spending as budget offers boost to student unions and safety

<span>Labor’s federal budget included a $38m budget commitment for a student ombudsman, a boost to student unions and a code to respond to gendered violence.</span><span>Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images</span>
Labor’s federal budget included a $38m budget commitment for a student ombudsman, a boost to student unions and a code to respond to gendered violence.Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

A $38m budget commitment for a student ombudsman, a boost to student unions and a code to respond to gendered violence have been praised by student safety advocates as a “huge step” in holding the sector accountable for student welfare.

But peak bodies say Labor’s investment in university reform in the budget must be accompanied by a meaningful increase in funding for research and development in order to meet Australia’s national ambitions.

The federal budget, handed down on Tuesday, laid out a downpayment of $3.8bn to address recommendations in the Australian Universities accord, which set out a blueprint for higher education for the coming decades.

The government responded in full or part to 29 of the accord’s 47 recommendations.

The budget commitments included $18.7m over four years to develop and introduce a national higher education code to prevent and respond to gender based violence, and $19.4m over two years to establish an independent national student ombudsman.

The organisation End Rape on Campus, a national advocate on sexual violence, said student victim-survivors had “led this fight for decades”.

“[The] budget signals just how seriously the government is taking this issue,” it said in a statement. “We can’t quite believe it.”

It also mandated that universities pass on at least 40% of the student services and amenities fee (SSAF) to student organisations in the budget, praised by the National Union of Students (NUS) as plugging the “gaping service provision hole” left by the former federal government.

The SSAF is a fee students pay each semester that was introduced by the commonwealth to fund non-academic services and university supports, set at about $175. Six in 10 universities give less than 40% to student organisations.

“This will help the many student unions, guilds and associations across the country provide higher education students with the targeted advocacy, mental health and cost-of-living relief services they so desperately need,” the NUS president, Ngaire Bogemann, said.

Ramping up tertiary participation, particularly among equity cohorts, was another key focus in the budget, with measures introduced to tackle cost-of-living and placement poverty.

Among the reforms were wiping around $3bn in student debt, introducing paid commonwealth payments for a string of care degrees, investing $350m over four years to deliver fee free university courses and introducing needs-based funding to drive up enrolments from priority cohorts.

The funding, to be implemented from 1 January 2026, will be delivered to low SES students, First Nations students, students with a disability and students studying in regional and remote areas.

No change has been made to the former federal government’s widely criticised Job Ready Graduates scheme, which vastly increased student contributions for arts degrees, or to the timing of Help/Hecs indexation.

The education minister, Jason Clare, said the “budget sets a goal of 80% of the workforce with a Tafe or uni qualification by 2050, and funds key reforms to get us there”.

“A big part of this is helping more kids from the suburbs and regions get a crack at uni and succeed,” he said.

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In response to calls from the Coalition and independents including Zoe Daniel and Allegra Spender, a study into antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism and the experience of First Nations people in the university sector will also be undertaken by the race discrimination commissioner, Giridharan Sivaraman, in consultation with community leaders.

The budget also announced the establishment of an Australian Tertiary Education Commission (ATEC) to be a steward of the tertiary system, and a “strategic examination” into the research and development sector.

The chief executive of the Group of Eight, Vicki Thomson, said the budget had “rightly focused” on cost of living relief for students, however long-term investment in research and development was also needed.

The Australian Academy of Science president, Chennupati Jagadish, said a strategic examination was a “necessary precursor” to a roadmap reversing the 14-year decline in research and development, which had left Australia “uncompetitive and ill-equipped to meet our national ambitions”.

The body estimated science and research expenditure in this year’s budget at just 0.54% of GDP. The Go8 has been lobbying for 3% of GDP to be spend on R&D.

The Universities Australia chair, Prof David Lloyd, said the government needed to balance cost of living relief with future tertiary investment.

“We can’t have a Future Made in Australia initiative without investment in research and development, so we must see some measures in the near-term to support the advancement of this vital work,” he said.