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17,300 jobs and $1.8bn lost at Australian universities in 2020

Australian universities lost 17,300 jobs and an estimated $1.8 billion in revenue in 2020, with warnings more losses are on the way.

The Australian higher education sector is expected to lose a further $2bn in 2021, Universities Australia warned. Photo: Unsplash

There are calls for a second financial rescue package in light of the ongoing border closures

Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said universities’ operating revenue fell 4.9% in 2020 against 2019 figures, and the sector is estimated to lose a further 5.5%, or $2bn, in 2021.

“We always said universities would face a multi-year hit to their revenues”

“When compared with universities’ pre-pandemic budgeted revenue for 2020, this loss is more than $3bn – which is in line with the sector’s estimates made in April last year,” she said, noting that the cumulative impact will be ongoing.

“We always said universities would face a multi-year hit to their revenues. If an international student didn’t enrol in 2020, the loss would be felt for what would have been their entire three or four years at university.”

Continuing border closures mean universities face the reality of fewer returning students in 2020, and reduced numbers in 2021.

“Universities have worked hard to limit job losses by halting infrastructure projects, making tough decisions about courses and making savings wherever they could – but the effect of Covid-19 on the higher education sector has come at a real cost,” Jackson said.

Research funding is also of concern to universities, with international student fees usually funding around a quarter of university research. Analysis from Melbourne University found that the drop in international student revenue meant universities could lose between $6.4bn-$7.6bn in research funding over the next five years.

Late last year the federal government allocated an additional $1bn in funding for research, a move welcomed by UA.

“It was an important acknowledgement that the jobs of the future are created by R&D, and that universities are central to national recovery,” said Jackson.

The Group of Eight – whose members carry out some 70% of Australian university research – also welcomed the $1bn announcement in the government’s Budget 2020, which meant “there are funds when we need them most for what absolutely must be achieved”.

“It enables us to do what is needed now,” Vicki Thomson Go8 chief executive said in a statement at the time.

In the lead up to October, Go8 had “been quite desperate… as researchers were being stood down and research programs faltered or halted all because we were missing the international student fees which previously paid for Australia’s research”, she added.

However there are calls for a second financial rescue package in light of the ongoing border closures with warnings Australia will lose its best researchers if universities could not afford the staff or equipment they needed.

The federal government still has not provided a timeline for the opening of borders and earlier this month reduced the cap on international arrivals by around 50%.

It continues to reiterate that bringing home the 36,000 citizens stranded overseas remain the priority, despite intense lobbying by the international education sector.

A meeting of state and federal leaders is being held this Friday (February 5) to discuss the pandemic. It is expected arrivals caps, state based pilots to bring back students and the vaccine roll out will be high on the agenda.

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