A$1 billion research boost hailed but long-term outlook uncertain

Australian budget package will tide over universities as they wait and see if international fees rebound  

October 8, 2020
Two boys are seen avoiding large waves washing through the closed ocean pool at Dee Why Point, Sydney, Australia
Source: Getty

Academic groups have called a A$1 billion (£553 million) boost for Australian university research in 2020-21 a “lifeline” to fix a “desperate” situation, but have warned that uncertainty about the recovery of international student mobility means that longer-term funding solutions are likely to be needed.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, about one-quarter of Australian university funding, or an estimated A$3.3 billion, came from international student fees, a revenue source that has dried up because of strict travel bans that remain in place today. This year, 11,000 higher education jobs have been lost in Australia, prompting the announcement of additional funding in the federal budget on 6 October.

“The A$1 billion lets universities keep more of their staff while they wait to see what will happen with the international student market,” said Andrew Norton, professor in the practice of higher education policy at the Australian National University. “The A$1 billion does not solve all their problems, but it will make a significant difference during 2021.”

Experts emphasised that this was one-off aid and not long-term support for research.

Professor Norton said Australia would have to “wait and see” if international students would return.

“There are numerous domestic and international factors, including Covid prevalence and the depth of the Covid recession, that will affect international student numbers apart from any international student-specific policies,” he said. “If they are not recovering by mid-2021, then the situation will need to be reconsidered.”

The Group of Eight (Go8), which comprises top institutions that produce about 70 per cent of the country’s university research, had lobbied for the additional funding.

“We have been quite desperate in past months, as researchers were being stood down and research programmes faltered or halted, all because we were missing the international student fees that previously paid for Australia’s research,” said Vicki Thomson, the Go8’s chief executive.

“With no idea when or even if that market will ever recover, the silver lining is that Australia can once again claim it is funding its own research.”

The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (Capa) said it was important “to support our best and brightest, before we lose them for good”.

“Covid-19 has exposed the cracks in the way research is funded, and we welcome the government’s recognition of this…and hope this is the first step towards a new way of funding research and a new future for Australia,” said Capa president Romana Begicevic.

On top of the A$1 billion, there were also pledges in the budget of A$459 million for the national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), plus another A$550 million for creating university places for students and short courses.

The University of Sydney said it welcomed the research funding but admitted that it addressed only “short-term challenges” and that “longer-term structural issues” remained.

It also maintained “serious concerns” about the Job-Ready Graduates Bill that is set to pass the Senate. That new legislation will decrease student tuition in some STEM fields but more than double them for the arts and humanities.

Unions have warned that the legislation will cut public investment per student, with a sector-wide loss of A$1 billion in teaching support.

The government aid was expected to go beyond just research-intense urban universities.

Helen Bartlett, chair of the Regional Universities Network, said the new funding gave institutions a sense of “certainty”. Regional universities could also benefit from support for research in health, agriculture, environmental studies and engineering.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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