AUSTRALIA: Boost for university infrastructure

The nation's universities have welcomed a decision by the federal government to allocate almost A$700 million (US$469 million) for spending on infrastructure and research facilities. The money has been fast-tracked to next year's funding round and will be drawn from the $1 billion Higher Education Endowment Fund.

Announcing the decision last week, Education Minister Julia Gillard and Science and Research Minister Senator Kim Carr said the move was in line with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's earlier announcement to bring forward the government's "nation building agenda". This is a $10.4 billion allocation aimed at countering the impact of the world financial crisis and limiting the rising unemployment rate.

Gillard and Carr said 14 universities from a field of 55 applicants had been selected to develop their proposals for next year's funding round. The proposals cross the teaching, learning and research spectrum, and include disciplinary areas ranging from education and creative arts to medical research, engineering and science.

The ministers said the government had already delivered $500 million for university infrastructure through its Better Universities Renewal Fund. Investing in education was fundamental to driving productivity growth and to building a modern and prosperous future, they said.

The vice-chancellors' organisation, Universities Australia, said the decision would help reduce massive backlogs in teaching and research facilities while supporting economic activity and enhancing graduate skills, productivity and exports.

Chief executive Dr Glenn Withers said investing in university infrastructure represented "quality national investment" in the present economic climate. It would have a quick impact, be economically effective, provide social support, regional diversity, cultural strength and an "ecological light touch".

"Universities Australia believes that facilities such as laboratories and lecture theatres are as important for education, the nation's leading service export, as ports and roads are to iron ore and coal," Withers said.

The endowment fund would soon be subsumed into an $11 billion Education Investment Fund. Universities Australia recommended the first EIF funding round be brought forward to July 2009 with the capital of the fund being made immediately available, he said.