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Australia budget: “the picture for universities will get worse”

Australia has allocated more than $19 billion in funding for its universities in 2021‑22, federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg said, as he claimed decisions made by the Morrison government during the pandemic had added 30,000 more places at Australian universities this year.

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"The government needs to seriously consider the consequences of abandoning and sector that trains future leaders of this country and the rest of the world"

However, stakeholders have highlighted the budget – announced May 11 – shows the government has ceased the emergency research funding provided in October, when the government injected $1bn for research and development following declines in international student enrolments and in turn their tuition fees.

Conservative estimates by Universities Australia predict the higher education sector will lose another $2bn this year, following a $1.8 billion revenue hit last year.

Included in the budget is $53m “targeted” support – which the government announced in April – which will go to international education providers most affected by border closures. Additionally, $26.1m will support non-university higher education providers to attract more domestic students via 5,000 Commonwealth supported short course places in 2021.

However, Universities Australia decried the lack of movement on border closures, as budget assumptions indicate that borders will remain shut until mid-2022. And the higher education sector will suffer, the body suggested.

“Now that the income source has run dry because of the government’s border policies, they are leaving universities unsupported”

“Governments across all jurisdictions need to come together with universities to develop a robust plan for the safe return of international students,” said Universities Australia’s chief executive Catriona Jackson.

“The plan would mean the careful quarantine of students from low-risk countries.

“With assumptions around borders being shut until mid-2022 now baked into the budget, the picture for universities will get worse. There will be significant flow-on effects for the nation’s research capacity and jobs inside and outside universities,” Jackson added.

Despite the “massive reduction” in international student enrolment, Australian universities are not receiving additional support, Council of International Students Australia highlighted.

“Persistent lack of funding for universities for years has caused them to rely disproportionately on international students’ income,” CISA president Belle Lim said.

“Now that the income source has run dry because of the government’s border policies, they are leaving universities unsupported. This causes devastating risks to the education quality for international and domestic students alike.

“The government needs to seriously consider the consequences of abandoning and sector that trains future leaders of this country and the rest of the world.”

However, budget assumptions include small pilot programs for international students commencing in late 2021, gradually increasing from 2022, Universities Australia continued.

“These pilots will provide a useful proof of concept for a larger scale return of international students,” Jackson noted.

“About the only thing in the budget that is about universities is a new $54m global science and technology diplomacy fund,” chief executive of the Group of Eight Vicki Thomson wrote in the Financial Review. “But that is a result of the scrapping of the Australia-China Science and Research Fund and the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund.”

Chair of Regional Universities Network Nick Klomp, said that a major gap the lack of funding for infrastructure at regional universities.

“Regional universities are anchor institutions for their regions, and make a fundamental contribution to regional economies,” Klomp said.

“These pilots will provide a useful proof of concept for a larger scale return of international students”

“Infrastructure at our universities improves research capacity, supports the engagement and partnership with regional industry, and provides broader social benefit to towns. Government should support the establishment of innovation precincts at regional university campuses.”

However, RUN welcomed measures to support the next generation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics with $42.4m over seven years in disciplines such as agriculture and engineering, “which are important to the regions”, he added.

“We hope that a broader package to enhance regional university infrastructure will be announced in due course.”

Research and development will be “critical in the short-term to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as building a prosperous and globally-competitive economy in the future”, Jackson reminded.

“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,” she said.

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

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