Universities left reeling as borders closed until mid-2022

Ninety-three per cent of international students have experienced significant mental health impacts by not being allowed to study on-campus, a survey has found. Source: AAP

Universities could face a grim future after last night’s Budget assumed the country’s borders will remain shut until mid-2022.

The bleak picture for universities could worsen after the 2021 Budget suggested international borders won't reopen until mid-2022.

Before the pandemic, international education was Australia’s third-largest export industry, worth about A$40 billion a year to the wider economy.

Due to COVID-19, Australian universities shed at least 17,300 jobs in 2020 and lost an estimated $1.8 billion in revenue compared with 2019.

“Governments across all jurisdictions need to come together with universities to develop a robust plan for the safe return of international students,” Universities Australia’s Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said in a press release.

“The plan would mean the careful quarantine of students from low-risk countries.”

Along with the challenges of the border remaining closed, the higher education sector is again facing significant cuts into the future.

Budget documents show there will be no extension of last year’s research package and a funding reduction of 9.3 per cent for universities and 24.2 per cent for vocational education between now and 2024-25.

“The sector took a $1.8 billion revenue hit last year. Universities Australia conservatively estimates at least another $2 billion will be lost this year – against 2019 actual operating revenue,” Ms Jackson said.

“Australia’s university sector cannot sustain these losses without serious damage to national productivity and the country’s knowledge base.”

Regional Universities Network also argued that regional universities had been largely ignored in the Budget.

“RUN has long argued that regional universities should be eligible for relevant infrastructure programs in the regional development portfolio, such as the Building Better Regions Fund,” Professor Klomp said.

“Regional universities are anchor institutions for their regions and make a fundamental contribution to regional economies. Infrastructure at our universities improves research capacity, supports the engagement and partnership with regional industry, and provides broader social benefit to towns.”

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was asked by ABC journalist Leigh Sales why the Budget did “nothing” for universities.

He responded that the government had announced more than $19 billion in funding for higher education between 2021-22 and 30,000 more places at Australian universities.


The Treasurer also said an extra $1 billion for research was announced in October’s budget. 

This time around, the Budget includes an incentive program to increase the number of industry-engaged PhD students and $42.4 million in scholarships over seven years to promote women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“There is $19 billion a year going to our universities. We actually guaranteed that base funding from domestic students to universities through the pandemic,” Mr Frydenberg told ABC.

“We're deeply committed to that sector. But what we'd also like to see… is close collaboration and coordination between our universities and our industries.”

Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg hands down his third Federal Budget in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, May 11, 2021. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING
Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg hands down his third Federal Budget in the House of Representatives at Parliament House.

Ms Jackson said universities welcomed the announcement of small pilot programs for international students to return to Australia from late 2021. 

She said they would provide “useful proof of concept for a larger scale return of international students.”

However, she emphasised that research and development will be “critical in the short-term to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as building a prosperous and globally-competitive economy in the future.”