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Higher Education Support Amendment (Australia’s Economic Accelerator) Bill 2022, second reading

It is with great pleasure that I speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Australia’s Economic Accelerator) Bill 2022 today as the shadow minister for education. The coalition supports this bill, which is the reintroduction of measures introduced by us which lapsed at the election. On behalf of the coalition, I thank the government for proceeding with our bill, which supports our world-class researchers, universities and industries to deliver for our nation.

My former colleague the Hon. Alan Tudge, as the previous minister for education, undertook a review of the government’s significant investment in research to identify ways in which we could drive greater benefits for our economy. This work looked at the research undertaken here in Australia by some of our brightest academic minds and the potential to support these ideas through the commercialisation phase. What we discovered was that, whilst we undertake world-leading research and publish more than 100,000 academic papers, we don’t do a lot with those beyond the initial exploration.

The ideas generated at universities are incredible, and we are renowned around the globe for inventions like the electronic pacemaker, invented by Dr Mark Lidwill and physicist Edgar Booth in the 1920s; the use of penicillin by Australian scientist Howard Florey in 1939; the black box flight recorder, invented in the 1950s by Dr David Warren, which is now installed on every aircraft; and the cochlear implant, developed by Professor Graeme Clark in the 1970s, which to date has been used on about 750,000 people across the world, absolutely changing lives. The list goes on, but these inventions alone demonstrate how we can assist Australian researchers to translate their amazing ideas into commercial applications to meet Australia’s and the world’s greatest challenges. This will not only highlight Australia’s incredible research on the world stage but also provide a boost to our productivity and create jobs and the industries of our future.

This translation element was a key component of the coalition’s $2.2 billion University Research Commercialisation Package and is the subject of the bill before us today. Our University Research Commercialisation Package outlined key initiatives to reform Australia’s research commercialisation landscape across four key areas: by placing national priorities at the core of Australian government funded research; by using priority driven schemes to ramp up commercialisation activity; by delivering university research funding reform to strengthen incentives for genuine collaboration with industry; and by investing in people who are skilled in university-industry collaboration.

As I was saying earlier on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Australia’s Economic Accelerator) Bill 2022, we outlined the mechanisms to drive these reforms through five key strategic and targeted investments, including our $243 million Trailblazer Universities program to boost research and development, and drive commercialisation outcomes of industry partners; a $150 million capital injection to expand the CSIRO Main Sequence Ventures program, which backs startup companies and helps create commercial opportunities; $296 million for 1,800 industry PhDs and over 800 in new fellowships; the creation of a new IP framework for universities to support greater university-industry collaboration and the uptake of research outputs; and, of course, $1.6 billion over 10 years for Australia’s Economic Accelerator, a new stage-gated competitive funding program to help university projects bridge the so-called ‘valley of death’ on the road to commercialisation—the subject of this bill.

In relation to the first element of the package, the Trailblazer Program, this research component was aligned with delivering research that would support our national manufacturing priorities. These priority areas were those we had identified as areas where Australia has significant comparative advantage and a strategic national interest. The areas at the time were medical products, food and beverage, recycling and clean energy, resources technology and critical minerals processing, defence industry and space. We ran an expression of interest to determine what potential projects were out there, to identify where there could be partnerships with industry and where these ideas could be supported through to commercial application. This process garnered significant interest from researchers, and the types of projects proposed were impressive. The proposals were reviewed by a panel comprised of leaders in the research field as well as industry and business leaders.

We announced the successful trailblazer universities in early 2022. They included Curtin University for the resources technology for critical minerals trailblazer, to establish our competitive advantage in the critical mineral sector and to look at ways to shield Australia supply-chain disruptions; the University of Southern Queensland for a space project dubbed ‘iLAuNCH’ that will look at automation, novel materials, communications and hypersonics; the University of Queensland for a food and beverage project that would support doubling the value of Australia’s food and beverage sector by 2030; the University of New South Wales to lead a recycling and clean energy initiative to innovate our technologies from the lab to industry, from communities and homes; the University of Adelaide for a defence trailblazer aptly named ‘concept to sovereign capability’, which is focused on developing new technologies and defence projects; and to Deakin University—in my hometown of Geelong—for a recycling and clean energy commercialisation hub, also known as ‘REACH’, which will spearhead our recycling and clean energy advanced manufacturing ecosystem in Australia.

The REACH project at Deakin, on its own, is expected to generate more than $1.4 billion in revenue and create around 2½ thousand direct jobs over the next decade. With further investment and partnerships, Deakin estimates it could create as many as 7,000 additional jobs—all driven by the coalition’s trailblazer program. Deakin will partner with other universities and education institutes including Federation University, RMIT, Swinburne and the University of Southern Queensland. Deakin also has vocational education partners, which are essential for enhancing the skills and knowledge of the workforce. These partners include the Gordon in Geelong, Bendigo Kangan Institute, South West TAFE, Holmesglen Institute of TAFE, Wodonga TAFE and Swinburne TAFE. There is a long list of industry partners for this project. I’ll just raise and mention a few, including Scale Facilitation and Recharge Industries—which are headquartered in Geelong—BMNT Technology, Calix Limited, Oztron Energy, Gen 2 Carbon, Carbon Revolution—another great advanced manufacturer based in Geelong—White Graphene, Quickstep, Viva Energy, JET Technology and HighQ. As I say, the list goes on and on.

These six projects alone, supported by close to $250 million in coalition funding, will create hundreds of partnerships across the higher education sector and, most importantly, with industry. They will inject billions of dollars into the economy and create thousands of jobs right across our nation. It is certainly a very exciting time for research in Australia.

The key element of our University Research Commercialisation Package, as I mentioned, is our $1.6 billion investment in Australia’s Economic Accelerator, the subject of the bill before the Senate today. This bill amends the Higher Education Support Act to make the appropriate provisions in schedule 1 to deliver this program and provide increased support to our universities to commercialise their world-leading research. This component of our package provides a 10-year investment for a competitive grant funding program. Again, our investment was to be aligned to areas that we identified as national priorities outlined in our Modern Manufacturing Strategy, a strategy which was focused on expanding and modernising Australia’s sovereign manufacturing capability, securing the supply chains and investing in the skills and world-class research needed by our manufacturing businesses.

The Albanese government has since scrapped this strategy and is attempting to replace it with its National Reconstruction Fund, which is really just a big bucket to fund their election commitments. Labor keep saying this will rebuild Australia’s industrial capability and that they want Australia to be a country that makes things again, but they simply aren’t listening to the sector. These businesses are essential to our economy and yet they are being crippled by skyrocketing energy prices and are struggling to get the workers they need to keep their doors open. And of course they are facing great concerns with Labor’s IR changes, including its introduction of multiemployer bargaining. Economic mismanagement and skyrocketing inflation will only mean businesses will pay more under this Albanese government.

I can tell you that these concerns are ricocheting through many businesses across this country. I was at the Geelong Manufacturing Council’s 25th anniversary dinner last week, and there was deep concern about Labor’s mismanagement of energy policy as well as its IR changes, including multiemployer bargaining. So there is deep concern across our country about what Labor is doing to small businesses and medium businesses and large businesses, including in manufacturing.
I do want to say that we designed our competitive grant for Australia’s Economic Accelerator program around three stage gates. The first is the initial proof of concept, the idea and the testing stage, to establish if the project is viable. The second is to support the idea through what, in research terms, is known as the valley of death. This is typically the development phase where significant investment is required and where the greatest risk of projects not proceeding lies. The final stage is supporting the project through to commercial realisation. This is all about getting the product through the development process where it is ready to be sold in the marketplace.

At each stage of the process, projects will be evaluated for their probability of success, with larger funding for each stage and greater industry contribution. This will ensure we are supporting projects with the greatest likelihood of success. The commercialisation component, effectively stage 3, or the final stage, would be further supported through the $150 million commitment to CSIRO’s main sequence venture. The program will work to attract projects with high-commercialisation potential at the proof-of-concept or proof-of-scale level of commercial readiness.

To support this new grant opportunity and ensure its success, the bill also establishes a governance framework, including a new advisory board. The board will have up to eight expert representatives from government, industry, business and the research sectors. The advisory board will oversee the program, drawing upon their collective experience, to drive the translation and commercialisation of research.

The next and final element of the bill amends the Higher Education Support Act to allow for grants to be made under part 2 and part 3 of the act to support the new industry-led study and postgraduate research grants. This will enable the creation of industry-led programs that pave the way for clear and structured career pathways. It will also imbed researchers in industry settings, build research careers within industry and, more importantly, create cohesion between academia and industry. Industry will benefit from the opportunities to host PhD students, which will open pathways for them to recruit high-calibre graduates.

This is a very exciting bill. It has attracted enormous support. I am pleased to see that the government has carried this through and is attracting support of the government. Let me reiterate the support from the Group of Eight universities, who said in February:
The commercialisation of Australia’s world class university research is key to the nation’s growth and prosperity, meeting the challenges ahead and enhancing the lives of future generations.

The Business Council of Australia said:
The government’s $2.2 billion package will significantly improve Australia’s ability to commercialise our best ideas and innovations, scaling them up to create exciting new industries, new exports and new highly skilled jobs for Australians.
This bill to support Australia’s Economic Accelerator program and all of the supporting elements of the coalition’s university research commercialisation package ensures that government investment into research is targeted and supports areas of national priority.
Our investment supports the economy, industries, businesses and our local communities by creating the jobs for our future generations. I commend this bill to the Senate.

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