Closed borders pose serious challenges for universities

Universities fear Australia’s borders will remain shut to foreign students until mid-2022, posing serious challenges to institutions and their students.

The federal government imposed a ban on foreign students entering Australia at the onset of the worldwide coronavirus outbreak which Australia has not been exposed to.

Universities say the decision to close the borders has slashed university incomes from student fees and cost the national economy an estimated AU$40 billion (US$31 billion) a year, enough to support an estimated 250,000 jobs pre-pandemic.

Catriona Jackson, chief executive of the national organisation Universities Australia, said a plan that would allow the safe return of international students was urgently needed.

Jackson said a plan devised by Universities Australia would involve a careful quarantine of students from ‘low-risk countries’.

Allowing students to return would also boost the national economy by AU$2 billion over the next 12 months.

“Higher education took a AU$1.8 billion revenue hit last year and Universities Australia conservatively estimates at least another AU$2 billion will be lost this year,” she said.

“With assumptions of borders being shut until mid-2022 now baked into the annual federal budget, the picture for universities will get worse.”

Jackson said there would be significant flow-on effects for the nation’s research capacity as well as jobs inside and outside universities, unless the government acted.

“Australia’s university sector cannot sustain these losses without serious damage to national productivity and the country’s knowledge base,” she said.

Enrolment decision welcomed

But universities welcomed a federal government decision announced on 11 May to begin a ‘pilot programme’ allowing some international students to enrol late this year, while gradually increasing enrolments from 2022.

“These pilot programmes will provide a useful ‘proof of concept’ for a larger scale return of international students,” Jackson said.

“University research and development will be critical in the short term to deal with the COVID pandemic, as well as in building a prosperous and globally competitive economy in the future.”

Jackson said the new plan acknowledged the centrality of research to national recovery: “It saves jobs and research capacity.

“The sector will continue to work with government on long-term plans for research sustainability,” she said.

Jackson said universities welcomed announcements made during the release of the annual federal budget on Tuesday night.

These are intended to boost the skills of aged-care workers, undertake aged-care workforce planning, tackle gender-based violence and improve mental health resourcing.

“Universities are where the next generation of workers will learn their skills, whether in aged-care or mental health or violence prevention, and make life better for all Australians, whatever their background or circumstances,” Jackson said.

Other budget announcements relevant to the higher education sector include:

• A new AU$54 million Global Science and Technology Diplomacy Fund to support strategically important science and technology collaborations with global partners.

• AU$42.4 million over seven years to establish a ‘Boosting the Next Generation of Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Program’ by co-funding scholarships for women in STEM in partnership with industry.

• AU$216.7 million over three years from 2021–22 to grow and ‘upskill’ the aged-care workforce through additional nursing scholarships and places and related measures.

• AU$27.8 million to increase the number of nurses, psychologists and allied health practitioners working in mental health settings through 280 scholarships and 350 clinical placements.

• AU$1.1 million over two years from 2020-21 to create new employment pathways for students and boost financial incentives for universities to enrol students in ‘industry PhDs’.

• Further funding for the Australian Awards for University Teaching and the Learning and Teaching Repository that is scheduled to end after the 2021 awards.

• Additional postgraduate scholarships for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nurses and allied health professionals to undertake formal aged-care and dementia qualifications.