The federal government has been urged to develop a strategy to boost research and development as part of a landmark reform blueprint for the university sector.

Education Minister Jason Clare released the Universities Accord final report over the weekend, with nearly 50 recommendations aiming to ensure 80 per cent of working Australians have a university degree by 2050.

The report’s recommendations include major changes to how universities are funded in Australia and efforts to reduce HECS debt burdens for Australians.

It also places particular emphasis on research funding and Australia’s lagging investment in research and development (R&D).

A key recommendation from the report is the commissioning of a formal strategic, cross-portfolio examination of national research funding with a “view to increasing Australia’s capacity to maximise Australia’s R&D competitiveness for economic gain, and environmental, cultural and social good”.

The report also calls on the government to develop a multi-agency government strategy to set medium and long-term targets for overall spending on R&D as a percentage of Australia’s GDP, with an aim of significantly increasing this proportion.

The Universities Accord recognised Australia’s strengths in research but generally poor performance when it comes to R&D and commercialisation.

R&D spending as a proportion of GDP was 1.68 per cent in 2021-22, a decrease of 0.12 per cent year-on-year.

This marked the continuation of a near-15 year downward spiral in R&D spending.

“Securing Australia’s high-quality research bedrock will require significant growth of Australia’s R&D system,” the report said.

“This growth cannot be achieved without a significant increase in Australia’s expenditure on R&D as a proportion of GDP.”

The Accord recommends the establishment of a Solving Australia’s Challenges Fund, which would reward universities that show effective use of research expertise and capability and apply their research findings to big national challenges set by governments, business and industry.

The reforms are also needed to address Australia’s dire skills gap.

“Australia is not meeting its current skills needs and will not meet them in the future without large-scale increases in the number of tertiary education graduates it produces, and without a significant uplift in the number of people engaging in learning throughout their working life,” the report said.

Findings welcomed

The recommendations from the Universities Accord have been welcomed by the federal government but it has offered no formal commitments to implement and will instead begin the process of costing them.

The R&D aspects of the report have been welcomed by the Australian Academy of Science.

“The Academy has been calling on both these initiatives for several years, including in our latest pre-Budget submission, so we are pleased to see these recommendations in the report,” Australian Academy of Science President Professor Chennupati Jagadish said.

“The report underlines the critical need to modernise our national science and innovation system.”

The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) also welcomed the report, labelling it an “ambitious vision for higher education and future workforce”.

“It is crucial the government undertakes a strategic national funding review and sets an increased R&D investment target of at least 3 per cent of GDP, with a clear roadmap of how to get there,” ATSE CEO Kylie Walker said.

Improving and reforming Australia’s higher education sector will be pivotal in ensuring the country keeps pace with technological developments and boosts productivity, the report found.

“Higher education is vital to Australia’s future: the knowledge, skills and research it produces enable us to be an economically prosperous, socially equitable and environmentally sustainable nation,” it said.

“Rapid technological, social, political and environmental change means the pressure is always on to produce more knowledge, skills, opportunities and research.

“Fall behind in this race and Australia will see its productivity, innovation and standard of living decline.”