Australian state bankrolls investment fund for universities

Victoria’s A$350m lifeline adds to the pressure on Canberra to do more to help embattled sector

May 19, 2020
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Victoria has unveiled a bailout package for the state’s universities, raising pressure on the federal government to follow suit.

The state government says it will support university capital works and research through a A$350 million (£187 million) “Victorian Higher Education State Investment Fund”, announced on 19 May. The money will support technology and infrastructure that “enables universities to conduct new research, commercialise intellectual property and create high-value jobs”, the government said in a statement.

The government will also allow universities to defer around A$110 million of their payroll tax, with the expectation that the cash flow boost will be used to “retain as many staff as possible”.

State treasurer Tim Pallas said the package was the “next step” in kickstarting Victoria’s economy. “A stable university sector will significantly contribute to our recovery efforts,” he said. “This funding…will protect thousands of jobs and ensure our universities can weather the storm.”

Victoria called on the federal government to “provide long term sustainability” to the sector through loans, grants, increased funding caps for domestic students, access to the JobKeeper employment subsidy scheme and better support for international students.

Victorian universities are set to lose hundreds of millions of dollars to the pandemic, mainly because of a severe downturn in international enrolments. Seven of the state’s eight comprehensive public universities have released estimates of their expected shortfalls, with the combined tally exceeding A$1.3 billion.

Victoria has also contributed the most generous of the government hardship packages for overseas students, committing A$45 million to fund A$1,100 relief payments for students left unemployed by the crisis – although they are yet to receive this money, according to media reports.

Canberra has offered international students almost no assistance and has excluded them from its main coronavirus bailout packages, the JobSeeker income support scheme and the A$130 billion JobKeeper programme.

However, a higher education stimulus package announced by the federal government in early April included a commitment to maintain funding for domestic students at expected rather than actual levels, collectively saving providers around A$600 million this year.

The government also undertook to pay universities their full complement of performance-based funding, waive regulatory fees and allow more flexibility in the use of teaching grants. But all these measures will cover perhaps one-seventh of the sector’s projected losses, while the government has tweaked the JobKeeper scheme’s rules three times to make sure universities are ineligible.

Universities Australia said the Victorian package was “good news” for the state’s universities, but stressed that all 39 of Australia’s comprehensive universities were affected by Covid-19. “Now is the time for the federal government to reconsider its approach so far and reinvest in universities at a national level,” said chief executive Catriona Jackson.

Innovative Research Universities executive director Conor King urged other states and territories to emulate Victoria in supporting their universities. “Until the federal government recognises the need to offset the worst of the revenue downturn for universities across 2020 and 2021, it is support like the Victorian investment fund that will keep vital research ticking over.”

The University of Melbourne, which has downgraded its revenue loss estimate this year from A$500 million to A$400 million, said the state government assistance package was still “much needed” and would save jobs. “The support measures are timely and will make a difference on campuses around the state,” said vice-chancellor Duncan Maskell.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Again we see that Australian Universities have "put all their eggs into one basket - China" instead of having a number of back-up policies if their main overseas student market suddenly shut down. As a Small Business owner one should always have alternative suppliers for all goods, just in case of a "pandemic".

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