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‘Gilded cage’ Australia: universities will “lose $2bn this year”

Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson has reiterated that Australian universities are set to lose as much as $2 billion in lost revenue this year due to border closures and loss of international students.

AustraliaAustralian borders have been largely closed since March 2020. Photo: Unsplash

"Last year, Australian universities lost $1.5bn"

Australia initially closed its borders in March 2020 and now has some of the strictest entry requirements globally, which has left international students studying from abroad and campaigning to be allowed back into the country, although surveys suggest a majority of Australians support the measures.

Earlier this month, it was reported that cumulative government figures in the year leading up to March 2021 had shown a 31% drop in international student commencements and a 17% fall in enrolments.

“One of our most famous immunologists, Peter Doherty, describes us as the ‘gilded cage’,” said Jackson during a talk at a GuildHE conference.

“How it is we open up our economy is a question that is debated daily [and] hourly across every part of the community. We’re going to have to make some very hard decisions in the future, especially for universities.

“Border closures pose very significant challenges… Last year, Australian universities lost $1.5bn. We predicted we will lose $2bn this year.”

While modelling this time last year by the Mitchell Institute suggested an even more pessimistic future – losses of up to $19bn over the next three years due to lost international student revenue, with an additional $1.15 lost to the wider economy for every $1 lost in university tuition fees – the impact will likely continue to be felt even if the country does reopen its borders.

“The impact of Covid-19 doesn’t just go with the trajectory of the virus. It’s a two, three, four year problem”

“The impact of Covid-19 doesn’t just go with the trajectory of the virus. It’s a two, three, four year problem because the international students you didn’t get coming last year in 2020 and you don’t get it second year, third year, the year after, and it goes on,” Jackson explained.

Although some regional governments have put forward proposals to allow the entry of international students, prime minister Scott Morrison has consistently said that Australia will not open its borders before it is safe to do so.

Several regional governments are now awaiting feedback on their proposals.

During her talk, Jackson also touched on growing concerns around foreign influence within Australian higher education. In 2019, a task force looking at foreign interference was established and guidelines were released for HEIs by the government, but there remain questions about the relationships of some universities with players such as China.

Similar concerns have also been raised in Europe and the US, although the situation in Australia is further exacerbated by its current frosty relations with China.

“We know that there are complex challenges in relation to foreign interference. If we just take cybersecurity, two, probably more, of our universities have now had very serious cyber hacking,” Jackson said.

“[These are] incidents which have left them with serious damage and very significant amounts of money they’ve got to spend to get their systems back online.

“Those things are just one element of foreign interference. And there is a considerable uptick in interest in how universities are both alert, alive and aware about what might be happening.”

She additionally emphasised the importance of maintaining openness to the world “but at the same time, paying due attention to national security and doing that with government so that we are clearly understanding each other”.

“We are ready to do the best job we can in this space, but also avoid unnecessary and disproportionate regulation or legislation which might just constrain our activities.”

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