Australian academics debate long-term impact of bushfire crisis

As universities help to shoulder the disaster response, experts say the ultimate outcomes from a tragic summer are hard to predict

January 14, 2020
Source: Alamy

Australian academics are debating the long-term impact of the country’s harrowing wildfire crisis on its universities, with a key role identified for institutions in assisting the recovery of disaster-hit communities but questions over future funding and international recruitment.

Bushfire experts say the short-term cost of the unprecedented fires, which have closed some campuses and embroiled many in disaster response work, could be cancelled out by the economic stimulus of future rebuilding efforts.

And although the crisis could undermine Australia’s lucrative international education industry, with would-be students deterred by images of charred towns and smog-choked cities, it could also reinforce the country’s position as the front line for climate education and research.

The catastrophe has so far absorbed A$2 billion (£1.05 billion) in federal government funding – with estimates that the total cost to the economy could be 10 times that figure – but it could free up funding for higher education after prime minister Scott Morrison declared that restoring the budget to surplus was now “of no focus to me”.

Jim McLennan, a bushfire safety researcher with La Trobe University, said the higher education sector would suffer the disaster’s effects but “I don’t know whether they’ll be major or minor. There’s a possibility that in the wash-up, they could be positive.”

Frank Jotzo, director of the Centre for Climate and Energy Policy at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, said he “wouldn’t want to speculate” on how the disaster would “pan out” for higher education spending. But he said the federal government’s bushfire bill was unlikely to disadvantage universities as spending commitments so far comprised a “very small part” of the national budget.

Professor Jotzo said that although the dramatic fire images broadcast around the world would dent Australia’s allure to foreign students, the country’s reputation as an “extremely interesting destination” for climate studies would be enhanced. The fires have confirmed Australia as the developed nation “by far the most vulnerable” to climate change, he said.

Windfalls could dry up from another important revenue source, philanthropy, as some of the sector’s most generous benefactors focus on the fires. Western Australian billionaire Andrew Forrest has pledged A$70 million for bushfire relief and recovery, while the Paul Ramsay Foundation has promised A$30 million.

However, Dr McLennan said universities in fire-ravaged areas were likely to benefit from enhanced economic activity once rebuilding efforts commenced. He cited estimates that the 2001 New York terrorist attacks had boosted the city’s economy by several billion dollars over the following years.

He said Victoria had reaped some economic benefit from the tragic Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, which killed 173 people. “Following any big natural disaster, there are winners and losers,” he said. “That’s not to take anything away from the suffering of individuals.”

To date, direct impacts on university infrastructure have been minimal. The University of Wollongong’s campuses on the south coast of New South Wales, one of the worst-hit areas, have so far escaped damage.

La Trobe and Charles Sturt universities, which have campuses in fire-ravaged parts of eastern Victoria and southern NSW, have also survived unscathed.

A supervisor of surgical training at one of the University of Adelaide’s teaching hospitals lost his life on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island. No fatalities have been reported among academics or students, but university staff are among those left homeless by the destruction of some 1,800 houses across the country.

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