The Morrison government says getting international students back to Australia is a problem for the states, claiming it has done enough to support the sector

Josh Frydenberg (Tracey Nearmy,Getty Images)
  • Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has defended the support the Federal Government has offered public universities, as the sector faces billion-dollar losses.
  • Speaking on Wednesday, Frydenberg said it was now up to the institutions to work with state governments to slowly bring back international students to Australian shores.
  • However, he remained firm that international borders won’t open until the middle of next year, saying “we’re not going to compromise on the overall health and safety of Australians”.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

The Coalition has defended the support it has offered Australian universities but says they must negotiate with state governments to bring back one of their primary sources of revenue.

Speaking at a business lunch on Wednesday, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the Morrison government would not be offering direct support to public universities eager to bring international students back into the country.

“If states and universities can reach an agreement to bring in cohorts of students over and above their exisiting quarantine caps, and that is done with the approval of the chief medical officer, then the government will look favourably on that,” he said, noting discussions were ongoing with the New South Wales and South Australian governments.

His comments appear to reject outright a public push by universities for the government to reopen the borders over the coming months.

While university research was given a $1 billion booster shot to see it through the pandemic, it has only been private colleges that have received funding help in the form of a $58 million support package.

On Wednesday, Frydenberg suggested the government had done enough, having relaxed some requirements for students and offered those who remain in Australia greater flexibility with working rights.

He also claimed that funding for universities was increasing in the coming years. Digging through the latest figures, this is only half true. A funding boost during the pandemic lifted funding to its highest level in a decade at $11.3 billion, declining to a little more than $10 billion by 2024. In real terms however, funding is actually on track to decrease to its lowest level since 2010.

At the same time, universities have lost their quickest-growing source of revenue in international students, with the sector anticipating multi-billion dollar losses as a result. Other reports suggest Chinese students, the single largest market, may simply go elsewhere in the future as a result of the current shutout.

To fix their own budget deficits, universities have been forced to cut tens of thousands of staff.

Their funding situation would be remedied, Frydenberg claims, as border restrictions begin to relax and small groups of students are flown in and quarantined at universities’ expense.

“As borders reopen, I am confident that our international students will come back,” he said.

Hard borders won’t be compromised

Curiously though the government line on borders has changed significantly since last year. As recently as March this year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told an AFR Business Summit that “the health risk [of the virus] is diminished”, and that states would need to prioritise the economy.

“The 2020 response to COVID-19 must be different in 2021. Why? Because the risk has changed,” he said.

More recently though, the 2021 and even 2022 response is looking a whole lot more like last year’s, as international borders remain shut. The Morrison government would be acutely aware that this response is supported by an astounding three-quarters of voters.

It is a hardline stance that the government looks like standing firm on, despite the Australian Medical Association (AMA) warning zero deaths would require a decade of shut borders.

“We’re not going to compromise on the overall health and safety of Australians by going against the medical advice and opening up the borders before it is safe to do so,” Frydenberg said, noting it was “one of the key factors” in Australia’s successful suppression of the virus.

“We don’t want to take chances unnecessarily. We have spent an enormous amount of money and we have seen a great loss of life — not as much as you’ve seen in the rest of the world but still a great loss of life — and we know the virus remains deadly and all around us so we have got to be cautious and careful about the international borders.”

Energy transition will be all about technology

The Treasurer also addressed Australia’s energy transition, and defended the lack of environmental policies in last week’s Federal Budget.

“The globe is moving towards a reduction in emissions as we are here in Australia and that transition has to be smooth,” he said.

As part of that, Frydenberg said Australia was “investing heavily” in hydrogen as a new energy source.

“The idea is to drive down the costs, because right now, it’s not as commercially viable as it could be.”

The Morrison government is also looking at other transition fuels like gas, announcing on Wednesday a new $600 million gas-fired power plant to be built in New South Wales’ Hunter Valley ahead of a by-election there this weekend.

This plant will be “hydrogen-enabled”, Frydenberg noted, “because we want to be have interchangeability of these particular technologies.”