Wednesday, 24 March 2021
COVID-19: Higher Education
Since the start of this pandemic 17,000 university jobs have been lost as a result of the government's failure to support one of our most important sectors. We have seen the Australian National University forced to close its neuroscience institute named after Mr Eccles, the ANU's first Nobel laureate. We have seen Monash University cut its theatre studies and musicology programs. Macquarie University will have no Bachelor of Mathematical Sciences taught this year, nor will the Bachelor of Advanced Science, the Bachelor of Advanced Information Technology or the Master of Mechanical Engineering be taught. We have seen the Australian National University downgrade its art schools, Newcastle and La Trobe universities abolish their drama departments and the University of Tasmania cut courses, including arts and humanities. From nearly every university we've seen reductions in arts, languages, science and maths courses. It didn't have to be this way.
When JobKeeper was put in place the government deliberately changed the rules, no less than three times, to exclude public universities from JobKeeper support. Private universities were the only ones who received support. According to Universities Australia, this sector has lost an estimated $1.8 billion in revenue in 2020, compared to 2019, and a further $2 billion in 2021. That means that there is a cumulative impact. A student who doesn't enrol in first year this year is lost in the second, third and fourth years.
We've seen a range of experts speaking out against the decisions that the government has made. Andrew Norton, a former higher education adviser to the Liberal Party, has estimated the funding gap to maintain our current research output is around $4.7 billion. He said:
The timing of Dan Tehan's higher education reform package could not have been worse for the university research sector.
He said that these changes 'put at risk Australia's research gains of the last 15 years'.
More than 40 per cent of university students will be paying more for their degree as a result of the deal that the government did with crossbench senators to get its university package through. If you're studying commerce, humanities, communications or law, you'll pay more than a dentist or a doctor for your degree every year. The cost for art students has increased by 113 per cent—going to about $58,000 for a basic four-year degree. This is exactly the opposite approach that Australia took in the early 1990s recession, when we encouraged students to finish year 12, to take the opportunity to do more learning at a time when earning was more difficult.
Education is our fourth biggest export industry and yet it is being decimated under the Liberals. Our universities will now receive 32 per cent less to teach medical science students, 17 per cent less to teach maths students, and 16 per cent less to teach engineering students. The Chief Scientist has estimated that 7,700 research jobs are at risk. Under Robert Menzies we had the Colombo Plan, which welcomed overseas students to Australia. Under the Morrison government we've had, 'It's time to go home.' That was the Prime Minister's message to international students when COVID hit.
They failed to recognise the crucial role that international students play not just in providing revenue to universities but also in enriching the student experience for all students at Australian universities. It's true of faculties too. Universities are struggling to access the international talent pool on which they draw so deeply. When I was director of the economics group at the Research School of Social Sciences at ANU, I was one of only a couple of Australian-born researchers in that group. Our universities are international and they deserve respect, which so sadly they are not getting from the government today.