Education Minister Chris Pyne during House of Representatives question time at Parliament House Canberra, Tuesday, March 18, 2014.
Education Minister Chris Pyne during House of Representatives question time at Parliament House Canberra, Tuesday, March 18, 2014. AAP Image - Alan Porritt

Pyne flags cuts to regional unis may come without reform

REGIONAL universities with fledgling research reputations would fear for the future of their communities if the Federal Government slashed billions of dollars worth of research funding.

Regional Universities Network chair Professor Peter Lee, responding to speculation the Coalition could take a knife to the funding if its higher education reforms are blocked in the Senate, said research was an investment in Australia's future and he did not support any research cuts.

The Southern Cross University Vice-Chancellor, who is based at Lismore, said the six RUN universities were all emerging in research fields.

He feared, compared to their metropolitan counterparts with more than 100 years, they would suffer a greater hit from funding cuts.

"That's even more reason to invest in research for the regions, especially research relevant to the regions, that promotes the economy of regions and the social cohesion," he said.

"Regions need to have intellectual capital and infrastructure, not just physical capital, to ensure their sustainability in the long term."

Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne expects his higher education budget changes to pass through the lower house on Thursday.

He told Network Ten that he was negotiating behind the scenes and he was making "great progress".

"The worst case scenario is cuts without reform," he said.

But he could hit roadblocks in the Senate with Palmer United Party leader Clive Palmer last week indicating his cross-benches would refuse to accept the measures which include deregulating university fees, cut per-student funding, and raising the interest rate on higher education loan debts.

Mr Pyne did not rule out cuts to research grants but said that was "not our plan".

"I have absolutely no desire at all to see research funding cut in Australia," he said

"What I want to see is the reduction in the commonwealth grant scheme by 20% but if that doesn't happen, then universities will be able to use that, the fact they have stopped that cut, they'll be able to use that money for research."

Senator Kim Car, Labor's spokesman on higher education, said any threats to cut research funding to universities unless the Senate passed was extortion.

Australian Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt said his party would not "give in to blackmail".

"If Tony Abbott threatens cuts to research funding, he will be met with the mother of all protests," he said.

"Blackmailing the Senate to support Tony Abbott's plan for increased fees for students by threatening 'doomsday cuts' to research will backfire."