2020 may be only halfway through, but it’s already a watershed year for Australian universities.
Against a backdrop of natural disasters at home, followed by an unprecedented global pandemic, Australian universities are now undergoing a massive structural change which will have consequences far into the future.
The new year was ushered in accompanied by drought, bushfires, air pollution, hailstorms and floods. Throughout, universities showed not only their resilience, but also demonstrated their role at the heart of the communities they serve. Researchers on campuses everywhere quickly turned their attention to solving many of the complex longer-term issues which accompanied these crises. Their work will save lives, hasten economic and environmental recovery, and create new knowledge which will help prevent future disasters.
By the time the last of the bushfires was extinguished, a new threat – COVID-19 – had arrived.
The pandemic has touched every aspect of our national life, including universities and higher education.
On 1 February, Australia restricted travel from China, followed quickly by Iran, South Korea and Italy. From 20 March, our borders were completely closed to all non-citizens and non-residents.
Among the first people to be affected were international students studying at Australian universities. Around a fifth were unable to return for semester one as travel restrictions tightened. With borders remaining firmly shut, there will be few if any of the 84,000 students due to arrive here for the second semester.
Universities welcomed the Government’s commitment on 12 April to guarantee Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) and HELP funding payments for 2020 even if domestic enrolments fell. In the end they didn’t, and now we are seeing very steep increases in demand. On the same day, Universities Australia estimated the revenue losses to universities due to the pandemic at between $3 billion and $4.6 billion by the end of this year (later revised upwards to between $3.1 billion and $4.8billion). More than 21,000 jobs are at risk. By 2023, university budgets could be short by $16 billion.
Two months later, on 19 June, Education Minister Dan Tehan announced the Job-Ready Graduates package to reform Government funding for university courses and associated student co-payments.
The package recognised that demand for university places will increase sharply. The COVID-19-induced economic recession will prompt an increasing number of young (and not-so-young) Australians to apply for a university place. And soon, the so-called ‘Costello baby boomers’ will also fuel surging demand for a university education.
Hence the second part of the Minister’s announcement: Creating an extra 12,000 Commonwealth-supported places for students in 2021, rising to 39,000 over the forward estimates and 100,000 by the end of the decade,
For some disciplines, including humanities, society and culture the Government contribution decreases and the student contribution to their course fees increase. In other disciplines, particularly Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, the Government will increase its contribution, resulting in lower course fees for students.
On average, student fees will increase by seven per cent, while average Government funding per place falls by 15 per cent. Overall funding available to universities per student place decreases by nearly six per cent on average.
Described by the Government as ‘Budget-neutral’, the package applies to enrolments in 2021 and beyond. Students who are currently studying at universities will be ‘grandfathered’, so these changes will not apply to them.
To assist universities over the next three years as they move from the current funding arrangements to the new, the Government is providing a transition fund. Allowances have been made for $390 million in 2021, growing to $705 million over three-year transition period.
The Government has brought back indexation for overall Government funding available to universities This had previously been frozen in 2017.
Other elements of the Job Ready Graduates packing include moves to implement the key recommendations of the Napthine review of regional higher education. Demand driven funding will be available for students from regional and remote areas. This means any regional or remote student who is accepted into university will be eligible for Government funding.
The Government will also establish a regional research fund and expand the regional university centres.
Further announcements on the future of university research-funding, which has been hit especially hard as a result of lost revenues, will be made prior to the October Budget.