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Is the end nigh for the Australian public university?

Allan Patience writes in the Pearls and Irritations blog (17.5.21) about the federal government’s seeming disinterest in effectively supporting the tertiary education sector through the worst effects of the pandemic crisis.

‘The Morrison government has declared war on Australia’s public universities. They are accused of being hotbeds of post-modern rabble rousing and an unbearable burden on taxpayers. Government ministers and employers complain that graduates are not “work-ready”. The remarkable thing is the supine response to date from the universities themselves to these baseless and gratuitous insults.

‘For decades now Australian governments have been imposing austerity budgets on the country’s public universities. At the same time the universities have been transformed from limited-entry (elite) institutions to mass-education institutions. While the aim of opening up higher education to greater numbers of people is a very worthy goal, it has been callously under-resourced by governments imposing the transformation in the first place. As a result, the potential economic and social benefits of mass higher education are being stymied.

‘… It is deeply concerning that this crisis in Australia’s public universities is not receiving the critical attention it should have. This is despite the fact that until COVID-19 closed the country’s international borders, education was one of Australia’s top overseas income earners. Morrison and his successive education ministers seem almost jubilant at slaying the higher education goose that has provided so many golden eggs, not only for the universities, but for the wider community.’

Universities lost 6% of their revenue in 2020 – and the next 2 years are looking worse

Peter Hurley and colleagues write in The Conversation (30.8.21) that university revenue fell by more than $2 billion in 2020 – less than feared – but universities are increasingly vulnerable to worsening conditions, with losses of international students accelerating.

‘With a 6% drop in revenue, 2020 was a year Australian universities would prefer to forget, a report released today by the Mitchell Institute shows.

‘The report, Australian investment in higher education, analyses over a decade of data to trace changes in university policy and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It shows university revenue fell by A$2.2 billion, down 6% from 2019. Operating surpluses across the sector fell by A$1.6 billion.

‘The main cause of the falls was reduced international student revenue and income from investments, such as dividends. The silver lining to the clouds over 2020 was the losses were not as bad as expected. But our analysis points to some very dark clouds on the horizon for Australia’s universities.

‘Special government support for the sector ends in 2021. Continuing border closures mean international student revenue is likely to keep falling. In 2022 and 2023, universities will have to navigate some of the most challenging conditions they have ever faced.’

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