Pandemic ‘widened divide’ between Australian elite and regionals

Big Group of Eight institutions got bigger while others suffered, exacerbating ‘David and Goliath scenario’

February 10, 2023
Australia Day UTE run Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia
Source: iStock

Covid-19 magnified the disparities among Australian universities, with some losing thousands of students in the pandemic’s early stages while others sailed through virtually unscathed.

Newly released student statistics reveal the uneven impacts of the coronavirus, as border closures and a roller-coaster economy upended both international and domestic enrolments.

The data capture commencements and enrolments in 2021, nine months into the outbreak. Student numbers slumped by between 5 per cent and 17 per cent at regional universities including Central Queensland, Charles Sturt, Federation, New England, Southern Cross and Tasmania.

Meanwhile, numbers grew at each of the high-ranked Group of Eight (Go8) institutions. The University of Sydney boosted its overall student numbers by 7 per cent, with international enrolments increasing by 10 per cent. Some 22,000 of its 35,000 foreign students remained encamped outside Australia.

Alec Webb, executive director of the Regional Universities Network, said the uneven figures reflected the dynamics of international education in Australia. Institutions with large proportions of Chinese students, who had proved unexpectedly willing to study online, had been less affected than those with large south Asian complements.

Mr Webb said the figures also reflected the strengthening of Australia’s labour market as the economy rebounded from the pandemic’s severest impacts, luring domestic students into the workforce. Some universities had lost full-time students while retaining or increasing their part-time numbers, he added.

This pattern had been particularly pronounced at regional and outer-metropolitan universities with high proportions of mature-age and working students.

Jonathan Chew, head of analytics with education chain Navitas, said coronavirus had increased the inequities in a sector where the richest institutions earned 10 times as much as the smallest.

“Covid has been a period when the big have gotten bigger and the strong have gotten stronger,” he said. “Whether that will correct, it’s hard to see how.”

Mr Chew said he expected pre-Covid international student market shares to reassert themselves to some degree. “But if you’re one of the [smaller] regional universities competing against a metro Go8, who doubled down and kept their online Chinese students and always had the brand – it kind of exacerbates that David and Goliath scenario.”

Overall, Australian higher education institutions boosted their domestic enrolments by almost 30,000 in 2021, as international student numbers crashed by nearly 50,000.

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