Australian universities assert eligibility for coronavirus subsidies

Government moves the goal posts as universities explore fine print of bailout rules

April 26, 2020
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Australian universities are encountering resistance from both sides as some make unlikely bids for succour from the government’s A$130 billion (£67 billion) JobKeeper employment subsidy scheme.

While JobKeeper offers employers a A$750 weekly payment for each permanent and long-term casual staff member, eligibility is restricted to organisations set to lose at least 30 per cent of their revenue or 50 per cent if they have budgets of A$1 billion or more. These thresholds were considered too high for universities to qualify.

However, at least four institutions have now urged their staff to apply after appraising the fine print in the scheme’s operating rules. The terminology used to define the revenue thresholds – “GST turnover” – gave some universities belated hope that they may qualify, as this measure appears to exclude government funding.

In an urgent message to staff, Murdoch University vice-chancellor Eeva Leinonen asked them to immediately nominate for JobKeeper payments. “It is very important to the university’s financial sustainability and our ability to preserve employment,” the email says.

“Initially, like other Australian universities, we believed we would not meet the eligibility requirements. However, our recent analysis of the Australian Taxation Office's published guidelines has indicated we do qualify.”

La Trobe University vice-chancellor John Dewar reportedly made a similar appeal, while Bond University urged staff to apply to the scheme “as soon as possible”.

The directives drew concerns from the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) over potential workplace implications for its members. The scheme’s “enabling directions” entitle organisations to force staff to make concessions such as cutting their work hours, changing their duties or exhausting their annual leave.

In a letter to Professor Leinonen, NTEU state secretary Jonathan Hallett said the union would only advise its members to nominate for the scheme if the university committed to not using the extra industrial powers, and promised that “no staff member will suffer any detriment”.

Such demands were rendered redundant in any case, when federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg snuffed out universities’ resuscitated hopes of qualifying for the scheme. In a 24 April media statement he flagged changes to the JobKeeper rules to include government financial assistance in the “turnover tests”.

Opposition education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek protested at such tweaks in a Daily Telegraph op-ed demanding more federal assistance for universities. “People are examining the detail of government announcements and they’re finding something different to what they were promised,” Ms Plibersek wrote. “The fine print doesn’t match the sales pitch.”

The University of Sydney believes it has “a strong likelihood of being eligible” anyway, apparently concluding that it can satisfy the turnover test – which can be applied over any calendar month from April to September – because of the timing of international students’ tuition fee payments.

Sydney has asked staff to nominate by 28 April. “The university could receive between A$100 and A$140 million in funding under this scheme,” vice-chancellor Michael Spence emailed. “This would be an incredible improvement on our financial situation and would help shape the scale of further savings measures currently being considered.”

Australian National University analyst Andrew Norton said universities “should take advantage of JobKeeper where they can. It isn’t going to solve their main problem, but it would give them some time to cut costs in a more orderly and strategic way.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

. The govt is not divorced from the sentiments of the Aussie taxpayers but actually reflects the latter’s sentiments as it should. Aussie tax payer monies for Aussies. As simple as that. The vice chancellors could surely sacrifice their million dollar salaries and buy some groceries to send to food bank to help these students. international students come here to study on host taxpayers expense, compete in the job pool with host country citizens and replace host country citizens in their jobs and use the money to get the degree and then fully expect to be able to get permanent residency and then citizenship. It appears that international students are upset not because their studies have got disrupted but because this path to residency and citizenship has got disrupted and so they are refusing to leave and complaining why a foreign govt is not helping them from their citizen’s taxes.

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