Education Minister Alan Tudge told the university sector that it has the government’s support – but uni leaders say they still haven’t seen the proof

(Photo by David Gray/Getty Images)
  • Education Minister Alan Tudge accepted the university sector had faced “a challenging time” in a speech to industry leaders, but suggested losses had been overstated.
  • The address, given at a conference of the country’s 39 universities, sought to placate the sector with several new initiatives to support growth.
  • University leaders have pushed back, claiming the government has failed to appreciate or tackle the ongoing threats to the sector.
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Education Minister Alan Tudge told the university sector it had the government’s full support at a Universities Australia conference on Thursday morning, but leaders in the sector say the government is failing to acknowledge ongoing threats.

The event marks the first major meeting of the country’s 39 universities since the pandemic began, closing Australia’s borders and cutting off the key revenue stream of international students.

In his speech, the Education Minister said he accepted it had been “a challenging time” for the sector, and conceded that higher education has been among the areas most damaged by COVID-19.

“Your finances have been hit by the lack of international students coming to the country,” Tudge said, though he also noted that the drop in enrolments “has not been as great as expected”.

“The most recent figures show that total international student enrolments at our universities are down only 11% on 2019 figures,” he said.

“With revenue from international students representing 27% of total universities’ revenues in 2019, this means that revenue from border closures to date is about 3% down.”

The comments are in contrast to education department figures that show enrolments down by 17% in March compared with 2019, along with other data showing that students commencing their studies fell by 62% to around 15,400 students in the second half of 2020.

The university sector has been critical of the government’s response since the start of the pandemic, when uni employees were excluded from its wage subsidy program JobKeeper, leading to the loss of around 17,000 jobs in the past year.

Furthermore, the sector, which is staring down a drop in operating revenue of 4.9% in 2020 against 2019 figures, and a further 5.5%, or $2 billion, in 2021, was effectively overlooked in the Budget announced in May.

Universities missed out on funding increases, but the government said it planned to work with the states to get international students back into the country by the end of the year.

In his speech Tudge announced another review, alongside one currently looking at how to improve the commercialisation rates of university research, that aims to enhance industry engagement in the teaching of undergraduate and postgraduate courses to “further ensure future graduates are work-ready”.

“Importantly, this review will consider how we can get more students to have industry experience, and potentially count that experience as credit towards their qualification.” he said, adding that “it will also look at the interaction between the VET [vocational education and training] and higher education sectors and how they can interact more seamlessly.”

Uni leaders say the government’s response doesn’t match reality

The speech also comes amid pushback from unis to claims of financial surpluses posted by some universities.

Professor John Dewar, chairman of Universities Australia and vice-chancellor of La Trobe University, told The Sydney Morning Herald in advance of the conference that the financial surpluses posted by some universities for 2020 should not be interpreted as a sign the sector had weathered the COVID-19 storm.

Responding to the Education Minister’s speech, released ahead of the conference, in which Tudge said the impact of border closures on international enrolments “has not been as great as many expected,” Dewar said the government had failed to appreciate “how tough things are in the sector.”

“While it’s true that some universities have produced surpluses, many have not,” he said.

“Next year [Universities Australia] is forecasting a further $2 billion loss of revenue, which a lot of universities will only be able to manage by making quite severe savings in their organisations, because they won’t be able to repeat the one-off measures that they took last year.”

“I don’t think things are as rosy as the [Education] Minister might think.”

He also rejected criticism coming from the government that universities had become too reliant on Chinese international students, saying it was “deeply unfair” the sector was being punished for developing Australia’s international education system into the country’s fourth most successful export.

“I don’t hear other successful export industries being criticised in that way, like mining, for example, or agriculture, which have been great success stories for the Australian economy,” he said.