“My hope is that we will hear sooner rather than later about a move back to campuses being reopened, with adherence to the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee guidelines around social distancing. But campuses will be looking to reopen for semester two.”
Asked about the prospect of border restrictions being eased for 2021 international student arrivals, he said: “Let’s get the campuses open. I mean that’s a pretty important first step … then, obviously, things will flow from that.”
As universities confront the ramifications of the pandemic, Mr Tehan said the sector had already been scrutinising its reliance on international education, especially the concentration of Chinese students, but “there is no doubt that COVID-19 has led to more urgent thinking about the sector’s reliance on international education” and how that model will look in the future.
The vice-chancellors of Western Sydney University, La Trobe University and University of Sydney warned a lasting impact on revenue would need to be confronted by government as enrolment numbers remain depressed by the ongoing global ramifications of the pandemic.
WSU vice-chancellor Barney Glover said it would be essential to look at the funding model, especially “the underfunding of research and how we can maintain our world class research capability in the face of several years of recovery in international education”.
University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence said university researchers had proved their value through the unprecedented bushfire season and the COVID-19 crisis and their efforts needed to be funded.
“What is the government’s support for that research system going to be? And in particular what is it going to be if the international student market is not as robust as it has been so far? And I think that’s a major policy question for the country coming out of this crisis.”
La Trobe vice-chancellor John Dewar said: “Working on the assumption that international numbers are not going to rebound for 2, 3, 4 maybe even 5 years, I think that will sharpen the focus on what government can and will do for the sector.”
Labor education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek said the nation needed to take “really serious look” at university financing.
“Putting international education on a stronger and more sustainable footing will be part of that. Making sure there is adequate funding for education and research is a really important part of that. There must be a greater role for public funding,” she said.
Australia’s spending on research and development fell to 1.8 per cent of GDP last year, below the OECD average of 2.4 per cent. University research spending has held up but it has been heavily subsidised by revenue from international students.
Mr Tehan said international education was a key driver of economic growth and employment and he wanted it to recover. “Rebounding strongly through going back to those areas which were enabling our economy to grow is going to be very important and international education was a key component of that,” he said.
“Rather than look at them picture as glass half empty, I think we need to look at it glass half full and the bigger decisions have to be around how do ensure diversification? How do we deal with sustainable growth? And how do we make the case for why this is so important economically for the nation?”
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.