Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall speaks on the Higher Education Support Economic Accelerator Amendment Bill

9 February 2023

I rise in support of the government's Higher Education Support Amendment (Australia's Economic Accelerator) Bill 2022. I've previously called for urgent measures to accelerate innovation in Australia, and I believe this bill is a good step in achieving this. I welcome the government's renewed focus on science innovation and creative entrepreneurialism as we seek to strengthen our long-term economic future.

Australia has a rich history of innovation that we really should be proud of. The black box flight recorder, the cochlear implant, the ultrasound scanner, wi-fi—all of these are Australian inventions that have changed the world. Right now, we have an important opportunity to invest in the education of our younger generations, whose ideas and innovations are a major key to ensuring Australia's future in the knowledge and technology spaces. Despite our successes, Australia sits well below where we could be on international rankings of knowledge and technology output. We can do better. That means we must accelerate the talent and ideas of our next generation of innovators. We cannot be content with peaking in the past. Targeted funding through university research grant programs and new incentives for tertiary education providers are welcome steps to enhance opportunities for our next generation of innovators.

More robustly funded research programs mean better equipped graduates. I believe this bill will help propel investment in innovation, which will make Australia more competitive. I'm pleased to see that major interest groups are generally supportive of the additional funding announced as part of the plan. Professor John Shine, President of the Australian Academy of Science, stated that:

Australian universities must be supported to operate across the continuum of basic to applied research and both academics and industry must be incentivised to translate ideas into commercial outcomes.

I concur with Professor Shine. The government has a vital role to play in bridging education with industry.

Whilst this bill is good, I don't believe it's perfect. There are risks, and I do note some concerns regarding some of the plan's policy features. It's imperative that this investment pay off. Australia's Economic Accelerator program needs to bridge education with industry; however, the bill only appears to legislate on one side of the bridge. I feel there is an important opportunity to incentivise industry to engage equitably with the tertiary education sector, should this be needed to further strengthen the Economic Accelerator program.

We also need more incentives to translate research and innovation into start-up businesses and new businesses. Australia only invests some 1.8 per cent of GDP into innovation and research and development. That's just not enough to be competitive in today's world. We need more incentives when it comes to R&D for existing companies to make sure they continually reinvest in their efficiencies and their sustainability and, ultimately, to ensure that they are competitive with the rest of the world.

The Australian Academy of Science also calls for greater detail on the cross-portfolio coordination of this bill. There are over 200 existing research support schemes and programs currently on offer in Australia. I believe that we need a cohesive and consistent approach to research funding, which should be implemented nationally. I feel it's unclear how the new scheme will be integrated alongside the existing programs.

In 2020, funding for basic and applied research and experimental development was concentrated in particular areas such as biomedical and clinical sciences, engineering, health science and biological sciences. All other fields received less than seven per cent of total investment each. That is a really disproportionate allocation of funding. I note that the establishment of an authority—of the Australia's Economic Accelerator advisory board—should, hopefully, ensure more equitable spread of that research funding across key industries.

Whilst this bill gives the minister significant powers to streamline targeted research grants funding to certain courses, I welcome the measured approach of an advisory board and hope the expertise of the appointed group will enhance decision-making that is based on experience and expert insight. I urge the minister to prioritise experience and knowledge in research and commercialisation when considering the appointments to the board.

Whilst the AEA advisory board will advise on which industries are in greatest need for research grants under the program, it's my sincere hope that clean energy and renewable technology industries will benefit from targeted research funding. I firmly believe this is an incredibly vital space for our long-term economic strength and growth. Investment in our transition to renewables and our legislated pursuit of net zero should be accelerated at every opportunity across every sector and every portfolio.

I welcome measured and appropriate reform of existing funding and reward structures in Australian universities and tertiary education providers. Whilst this bill is a strong step towards bridging tertiary education with in-demand industry, it needs to pay off long term, so I hope the government is open to further incentivising industry in the future. I also ask the government to acknowledge the opportunity to direct research funding towards a clean energy economic future. I welcome the increased focus on commercialised research to equip and propel our next generation of innovators into the knowledge and technology space, and I'm excited to see how Australians continue our rich history of innovation.

Finally, while talking about education, I must thank all the educators and schools in Warringah for the wonderful work that they do in nurturing those very smart brains keen for information, in particular in STEM subjects. I'd also like to recognise the amazing leaders that have participated in my electorate of Warringah—the youth ambassadors who for the last four years have participated each year in bringing to me their knowledge, their hope, their feedback, their concerns and anxiety about our future, and their questions about what opportunities they have and what support they will get in careers of choice or innovation and about their tertiary education pathways or TAFE or professional opportunities. My youth ambassadors are the school captains of all the schools in Warringah, and they are such an incredibly motivating bunch. These young people are just so smart and bright. They are caring, and they have an incredible focus on the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow. They want to know more about innovation and tertiary education opportunities, and they want accountability in this place, where we are legislating and really directing what their opportunities are going to be as they grow up. Thank you to them and to the current class, of 2023. I commend this bill to the House.