Australian PM: ‘no special deal’ for universities on bailouts

While universities have been made to jump through extra hoops, Scott Morrison says they are being treated like any other billion-dollar business

July 21, 2020
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison

Australia’s prime minister has insisted that universities’ exclusion from the JobKeeper programme is not special treatment, even though the government specifically tweaked the rules to make sure universities could not benefit from the giant job subsidy scheme.

In an interview broadcast on 21 July, after the government announced an extension of the scheme, Scott Morrison said that universities were being treated no differently from other “very large organisations”.

He said that like billion-dollar-plus corporations, large universities could only qualify for JobKeeper if they could demonstrate a 50 per cent downturn in their revenue. “We’re applying the same tests,” he told the ABC. “Universities are just not getting a special deal.”

What Mr Morrison did not mention was that universities had been subjected to more stringent time frames than other organisations. Under an amendment revealed in early May – the third rule change aimed at universities – they were only eligible for JobKeeper if they could demonstrate the required scale of revenue loss over the first six months of 2020.

Other organisations have been allowed to calculate their revenue losses over any monthly or three-monthly period between April and September.

The 1 May change ruled out the University of Sydney’s hopes of attracting JobKeeper subsidies. It had applied for payments based on the timing of its international students’ tuition fee payments.

All other public universities’ prospects of receiving the payments had been dashed by two rule changes in April.

Exclusion from JobKeeper is the biggest grievance of critics who say that the government is doing too little to help universities through a crisis predicted to decimate them. The Group of Eight network expects its member institutions to lose 6,700 jobs by early next year.

UNSW Sydney last week became the latest institution to announce a redundancy programme, with the equivalent of 491 continuing jobs to go. Such figures are thought to be dwarfed by the number of casual and fixed-term staff that have already gone.

Mr Morrison said that universities were “expected to draw on their reserves” like private companies. “These are very large organisations with billion-dollar reserves and they’ve got multimillion dollar CEOs,” he said. “They’re making decisions about how they’re running their own organisations just like many large businesses.”

Mr Morrison said that the government had helped universities by committing to fund them this year for their full quota of domestic places. But while this measure is expected to save the sector perhaps A$600 million (£335 million), universities face much larger losses from the pandemic’s disruption of their international enrolments.

Mr Morrison acknowledged universities’ “challenges” with the international market. “We’ll be doing what we can to try and restore that,” he said.

On 20 July, the government announced new visa processing arrangements that are expected to benefit universities’ international operations when foreign students are allowed to enter Australia.

In another piece of good news for the sector, the home affairs department has advised universities that future international students – as well as those already enrolled – will be able to qualify for post-study work rights through online study with Australian institutions.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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