We are living in an age of disruption and crises. What COVID-19 confirmed, however, is that universities’ knowledge and expertise was tapped time and again for advice and solutions to help Australians deal with a major shock to society.
Last year, universities did what they do best – delivering to the nation, evidence-led solutions to the most complex problems.
In her address to the National Press Club last February, Universities Australia Chair Professor Deborah Terry asked us to place our trust in evidence and expertise, and this is exactly what much of the world did.
Throughout last summer’s bushfires, drought, dust storms, hailstorms, floods and dangerous smoke haze and on to the COVID-19 global pandemic, Australia, and the world, has relied on university research, experts, staff and facilities.
Last February, when increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases in China led to the introduction of travel restrictions to Australia, universities expressed concern for their students who were unable to commence or recommence their studies in person.
In March, universities moved their teaching online for all students as part of the national effort to slow community transmission of COVID-19 and enable both domestic and international students to go ahead with their studies. Throughout the pandemic universities have cooperated closely with health authorities, while continuing to support students.
In April, following intense engagement with Universities Australia, the Government guaranteed Commonwealth Grant Scheme and HELP funding payments for universities for 2020 to help secure universities’ viability. Universities welcomed this commitment from Government. After detailed engagement with TEQSA, Universities Australia was also pleased to see significant flexibility announced.
Mandatory clinical education in health professional courses was able to continue throughout the pandemic following the development of National Guidelines for Clinical Education Continuity in April.
Throughout April and May, Universities Australia advocated stridently for Government support for international students who had lost their part-time jobs and were not eligible for the same support available to domestic students. It was gratifying to see state and territory support was forthcoming. The sector stood up with $112 million and 77,000 students helped.
Universities Australia began a sustained campaign outlining the compelling case for Government to prioritise investment in university research vital to Australia’s economic and social development as modelling projected up to 38 per cent of university research salaries could be at risk. The campaign bore fruit in the October Budget.
In May, Universities Australia identified the urgent need to act on course accreditation. In conjunction with the Australian Council of Professions, Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia, Independent Higher Education Australia, the Australian Collaborative Education Network and the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency, Universities Australia developed a Joint Statement of Principles for the Higher Education Sector COVID-19 Response. The statement supported the maintenance of accreditation flexibility with course quality during the changes and challenges imposed by the pandemic. This flexibility was fundamental to students getting through courses and into the workforce at a crucial time.
Also in May, eSafety and Universities Australia launched the Toolkit for Universities, a set of 14 resources to help keep university students and staff safer online. The project was begun well before COVID-19 but was important and timely.
New modelling released by Universities Australia in early June found that universities could lose $16 billion in revenue in the four years 2020 to 2023 inclusive, compared to a “business as usual” scenario.
On 19 June, the Government announced a significant program of policy change in its Job-Ready Graduates package. It included major changes to the Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding for universities and corresponding student contributions to increase the number of domestic student places from 2021 onwards. Universities welcomed the plans to increase places and the commitment to indexation. Following sector advocacy, the Government announced amendments to the legislation in August to include legislative protection for funding of student places and a transition fund. The final legislation passed through Parliament in early October.
After months of solid sector advocacy, Government announced changes to visa arrangements for existing international students in July. Among other things, these measures addressed eligibility for post-study work visas and fee waivers for students requiring a new student visa because of the pandemic. The changes were, and remain, fundamental to keeping faith with international students.
In August, Education Minister Dan Tehan announced a review of university progress against the principles of the mode code for freedom of expression developed by former Chief Justice of the High Court Robert French. Universities assisted Professor Sally Walker with the review and her final report was released on 9 December. It found that 23 universities – more than half – had policies that are fully or mostly aligned to the code.
When the Government introduced its Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill 2020 in late August, Universities Australia stressed the importance of striking the right balance between national security and research collaboration. In our submission to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee’s inquiry into the Bill, Universities Australia expressed concerns the Bill wasn’t proportionate to risk and would impose an onerous administrative impost on universities and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Our advocacy resulted in some narrowing of the scope of the legislation, and greater clarity in the definition of institutional autonomy.
Ahead of the October Federal Budget, Universities Australia called for immediate relief to support Australia’s university research assets. Our pre-Budget submission made five key recommendations to prevent serious damage to the nation’s research capability, as well as arguing for hardship funding for international students, and a new approach to expanding the nation’s clinical education capacity.
The sector was pleased to see Government had heard our calls for research support with the injection of $1 billion in university research announced in the Federal Budget on 6 October.
From the start of 2020, Universities Australia argued more student places are required to ensure Australians have the opportunity to attend university, especially given we know demand grows in a recession. The Government responded with Budget funding for 50,000 new short courses and an additional 12,000 new commencing university places in 2021.
The October Budget also included an announcement of an additional $50.3 million in funding from the Commonwealth Department of Health directly to universities to expand the Rural Health Multidisciplinary Training (RHMT) program. Through the program, universities support rural clinical education, research and health workforce development.
In September, Universities Australia and headspace released an evidence-informed toolkit to help universities keep their communities safe and supported following a death by suicide. The toolkit provides clear, practical guidance for universities in how to manage such events in the days, weeks and months following a death.
Universities Australia then collaborated with headspace and Everymind to deliver online suicide response training to over 140 senior leaders across the sector. This work was all the more important and timely given the mental health implications of the pandemic.
In November, Universities Australia welcomed the adoption of a number of Universities Australia’s recommendations in the final submissions of the Counsel Assisting team at the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety. The final report from the Royal Commission is due in February 2021.
Despite its challenges, 2020 reminded us that universities are home to the big ideas, the breakthroughs and revolutionary thinking that shapes our lives.