Today, the federal government accounts for about 30 per cent of university funding, down from over 80 per cent in the 1990s. Coalition and Labor governments have actively encouraged universities to grow their revenue from international students. And grow it they did. International students now account for 46 per cent of enrolments at the University of Melbourne and 39 per cent of enrolments at the University of Sydney.
Their fees have provided for teaching, research and campus upgrades – but that income stream turned into a trickle when the government closed the borders to stop the exponential rise of COVID-19 cases in Australia. Universities expect international enrolments to fall further next semester. They have flagged their own significant measures to save costs, including cutting capital works and casual jobs.
Meanwhile, domestic student numbers are set to soar, as the Costello baby boom children of the mid-2000s reach adulthood and the economic downturn triggers a rise in people wanting to retrain. The larger number of students will attract more government funding, but that funding often doesn’t cover the cost of running a course.
The options to help Australian universities if their financial difficulties worsen all seem to carry a cost. Allowing international students to enter Australia again will restore a plentiful funding stream and produce other economic benefits in the way of retail spending and jobs, but until there is a vaccine, it risks a resurgence in cases of COVID-19.
We risk suffering as a society if we cut back on research, particularly at a time when we are so reliant on our medical scientists to find that vaccine. Pursuing further partnerships with the private and philanthropic sectors would allow various fields of research to continue, while reducing the strain on the public purse and allowing money to be redirected to teaching Australian students – but that only goes so far.
We cannot allow the government to use the COVID-19 pandemic to revisit their scotched plans of 2014, when they tried to deregulate the sector and allow universities to set their own fees. Under such a scenario, Australian students would have graduated with much larger debts. Such a move goes against the very principles upon which universities were founded in Australia, to afford “children of every class” an education.
While increasing government funding to universities adds to the national debt, at least it will be spread across society – a society which in turn benefits from the educated young people universities create. It is the fairest outcome – and pivots the focus of Australian universities back to the students they were set up to serve.