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What the future holds for Australia’s university sector

Updated: Aug 28, 2020

The financial impact of COVID-19 became apparent early for universities, and sadly it shows no sign of subsiding.

The government imposed an initial ban on non-citizens travelling from China in early February, stranding over 100,000 students offshore.

The subsequent closure of Australia's borders and loss of international students has hit university finances hard. The number of onshore international students in higher education is now sitting at 330,000, down about 30% on last year. Modelling from Universities Australia predicts losses of up to $4.8 billion in 2020 alone, with 21,000 jobs on the chopping block. Early career researchers and women are most at risk of job losses, and this could have knock on affects to Australia’s ability to innovate and in turn support economic growth. Sadly, initiatives for entrepreneurs and creativity may also be hit – for example Queensland University of Technology is winding down its Creative Enterprise Australia program after 12 years.

Institutions are adapting, putting major capital works on hold, freezing non-essential spending, and negotiating to minimise job losses. Projected sector losses prompted the government to guarantee its $18bn contribution to universities. Plans are also underway to begin returning international students to two major universities, in a bid to prove students can be safely returned from abroad.

In the lead up to semester two of study, it would not be unusual to see inner city billboards peppered with inspiring campaigns enticing commuters to consider a career change. Instead, the current climate means the websites of this country’s major institutions are filled with messaging about how they will keep students safe during COVID, or espousing the benefits of remote study.

Coronavirus will also cause permanent change within the university sector, beginning with a reappraisal of the business model – which relies on international students and has prevailed in universities over recent decades. The relentless growth of international education has seen it become Australia's third-largest export earner, behind only iron ore and coal. The question remains as to what will replace this lost revenue? Government, philanthropy, commercialisation… an increase in fees? Once universities get through the current crisis, all eyes will be on the sector and the government to see where this answer lies.

Molly Bruce

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