“We are going to follow the public health advice, and if that advice is no international students this year, this will have a huge impact,” Professor Garton said. “There’s no doubt the biggest impact will be on research.
“If, as we all know, international students are funding a significant portion of the research in higher education – and let’s face it, universities do a very significant amount of the R&D in the nation – then we need a kind of rescue package for 2021.”
Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt said vital research would have been “knocked decades backwards” without last October’s financial boost.
”Any follow-on investment into our internationally leading research system would have significant value and would be paid back through creating the jobs, economic activity, and needed advances that will pave the way for a prosperous Australia in the post-pandemic world,” he said.
Professor Garton said the financial hit would be to staffing and equipment. “We are having to downsize our workforce as we speak, so the promising early researchers will not have jobs,” he said.
“The clean room in the nanoscience building cost $10 million to fit out, we don’t have that money any more. Researchers will not have the equipment they need. That’s one of the easy areas to balance the books; you just don’t buy the particle accelerator.”
The sector was also worried that international students wanting an on-campus experience would stop waiting and look to Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, which would be more attractive under new President Joe Biden.
Canada is open to international students and has just allowed former students with an expired visa to apply for a new work permit.
Universities in Canada and the UK were also sending staff to China and India to recruit students. “They’re out there marketing left, right and centre, seeing as many people as possible and offering inducements,” Professor Garton said. “We can’t send people to market because of the travel ban.”
University of NSW vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs, who is on the federal government’s research sustainability committee, said the billion dollars given to the sector last October would make “a real difference” this year.
“Of course something needs to be done to make sure Australia’s research sector, which is genuinely amongst the very leading research sectors in the world, can continue,” he said. “I am encouraged by [the committee’s] discussions, I think government really does understand how important it is.”
A spokesman for federal Education Minister Alan Tudge referred the Herald to the Minister’s interview on Sky News on Thursday, in which Mr Tudge said public university enrolments only fell five per cent last year because students could enrol and study from abroad. That constituted just 1.25 per cent of their revenue.
“That may differ from university to university but it’s not a crisis if it’s only down 1.25 per cent,” he said.
Early last year, Sydney University predicted a financial shortfall of $470 million. That figure was later revised to $231 million on stronger-than-expected enrolments. UNSW began a redundancy program involving almost 500 jobs. Both universities will find out how many international students have remained in their March censuses.
Get our Coronavirus Update newsletter
Stay across the news you need to know related to the pandemic. Sent Monday and Thursday. Sign up here.
Jordan Baker is Education Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald