‘End reliance on overseas fees’, Australian academics tell ministers

Activists campaign for less reliance on international education income, as government flags a ‘supervised’ reopening of borders

May 21, 2020
A convoy of academic union members demands federal government intervention in Australian universities' funding crisis

Australian academics have demanded an end to universities’ financial reliance on international tuition fees, after Canberra hinted that overseas students may be allowed back in to help the sector avert economic catastrophe.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has stepped up its campaign for federal intervention to prevent university job losses, with #SaveHigherEdJobs achieving prominence as Australia’s top-trending Twitter hashtag on 21 May.

In Sydney, scores of cars formed a protest convoy from the harbourfront to the headquarters of the governing Liberal Party, painted with slogans like “funding now – save higher education” and “fund the shortfall, guarantee all uni jobs”.

Michael Thomson, secretary of the NTEU’s New South Wales (NSW) division, said up to 30,000 jobs were at stake. “All of the jobs that will be lost could be saved,” he said, if the federal government provided emergency relief funding and made universities eligible for the JobKeeper employment subsidy scheme.

“Universities…rely on overseas students for revenue,” he told Times Higher Education. “At the NTEU, we have been talking for a long time about the marketisation of universities. Every unit at the university, every school, every faculty has to make a return. What’s this got to do with education?”

David Shoebridge, a Greens MP in the NSW parliament’s upper house, warned of a “generational loss” of teaching and research experience. “We need a different future for higher education, not reliant upon overseas students," he said.

“Young upcoming academics…are most at risk. Their research funding has been cut. They’re being [assigned] more teaching obligations. We are destroying the future of our education system, and [our] long-term interest in having world-leading educational institutions. It’s not just a crisis of jobs. It’s a crisis for the future of Australia’s economy.”

However, Canberra signalled that it would look to international education to dig the sector from its fiscal hole. Asked what action would be taken to prevent about 40 per cent of Australian researchers from losing their jobs, health minister Greg Hunt reiterated the government’s willingness to “look at means of bringing back” international students.

“Universities [are] putting forward proposals for careful, cautious, quarantine-based resumption of international students. A number of the premiers have talked about that, and we remain very open and very welcoming to proposals that they are likely to put forward.”

New analyses by Australian National University higher education policy expert Andrew Norton outline the extent to which international education subsidises universities’ costs. Professor Norton has calculated that some 27 per cent of university research spending – about A$3.3 billion (£1.8 billion) – relies on profits from international students.

Professor Norton also estimated that Australian universities had netted more than A$3.9 billion from international students in 2018, recouping fees of around A$8.8 billion from courses that cost them about A$4.8 billion to deliver. Management and commerce degrees in particular yielded a “large profit margin”.

He said universities charged an 80 per cent “mark-up”, on average, for teaching overseas students – a figure he deemed “high but not beyond credible”.

“It is consistent with the extreme enthusiasm universities showed for taking ever-greater numbers of international students, and the dire predictions they now make about their finances due to having fewer than expected international students,” he said.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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