Coastal Australian universities report second semester surge

Increasing demand a taste of things to come, when school leavers alight on a ravaged job market

August 4, 2020
A breaking wave
Source: iStock

Regional universities on Australia’s east coast are reporting spikes in mid-year enrolments, in a taste of things to come for a sector confronting demands to do more with less.

Central Queensland University (CQU) said that new term two enrolments had risen by 52 per cent compared with last year, with courses in nursing and mental health proving particularly popular.

James Cook University said that its domestic enrolments were 38 per cent higher than at the same time last year, with strong interest in education and nursing science. “Our enrolment figures underline the continued importance of education during uncertain times,” said acting vice-chancellor Chris Cocklin.

Southern Cross University (SCU) said that a “strong intake” for session two classes had raised its overall domestic enrolment by 35 per cent compared with July last year. “Many people took a Covid moment to consider what really matters to them for the second half of 2020,” it said.

SCU reported strong interest in health and teaching courses, along with a near doubling of new enrolments for session two science courses. Undergraduate certificates in education and psychological services had also proven popular, while CQU said that its postgraduate certificates in nursing and information technology were in demand.

The University of Newcastle also said that it had experienced strong interest in semester two courses. “People are looking to our university to help them retrain and reskill and help our regions recover from the impact Covid-19 is having,” said vice-chancellor Alex Zelinsky.

The reports suggest that people dislodged from the labour market are seeking out qualifications often considered safe options at times of economic upheaval, particularly in nursing and education. Regional universities, which tend to cater for more mature-aged students than metropolitan institutions, appear to be first to experience the trend.

The Universities Admissions Centre, which recruits mainly for New South Wales and Canberra institutions, said that applications from mature-aged students for semester two intakes were about one-third up on last year.

Such figures signal the likely demand on city universities catering mainly to school-leavers, as a bulge in the adolescent population coincides with a pandemic-induced contraction of job opportunities.

Metropolitan institutions have already reported a moderate uptick in domestic demand, reversing a decline earlier in the year from people initially deterred by the prospect of studying online.

Universities face mounting demand for teaching with a declining teaching workforce. Thousands of casual and limited-term staff are already thought to have been jettisoned. The University of New England is among the latest institutions to announce plans to cull permanent positions, with the pandemic expected to cost it A$25 million (£14 million) this financial year.

A high-profile University of Sydney psychiatrist said that the JobKeeper wage subsidy programme should be extended to higher education institutions on mental health grounds. Ian Hickie said the government’s exclusion of universities from JobKeeper was “impossible to fathom”.

“This is a major employer with major economic benefits, but it’s also critical to the social connection and lifetime opportunities of young people,” Professor Hickie told the ABC.

“When you take the very unusual set of circumstances we now have in relation to the Covid pandemic – increasing youth unemployment, decreasing education opportunities for young people, and social disconnection – that is a perfect storm of risk factors that act together to drive up rates of drug and alcohol [abuse], psychological distress, suicidal behaviour and sadly, eventually, lost lives.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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