The old tunes might not be the best ones

When Covid closed borders, universities’ over-reliance on international student fees looked like disaster. Are they any less exposed today?

July 6, 2023
Sir Elton John performs on the Pyramid stage Glastonbury Festival 2023 to illustrate Are old tunes the best?
Source: Samir Hussein / Getty Images

I did not go to Glastonbury to dance to Elton John’s back catalogue, but judging by the television coverage I am one of the only middle-aged Brits who was not there.

The festival once beloved of the coolest of the cool appears, a few decades on, to be more for parents and grandparents, who have colonised the fields of Worthy Farm. Maybe the £340 ticket price and double steel fencing is keeping out the impoverished young.

One shouldn’t be too misanthropic. Things mature in all walks of life, morphing into something a little different in the process.

In any case, seeing 200,000 people packed together after the privations of Covid was a joy whoever they were (two years ago Glastonbury consisted of a TV repeats package after all).

The evidence that things have bounced back after that strange hiatus is everywhere. For all the talk of there being a “new normal”, in many instances change proved to be more of an inconvenient interlude.

A case in point is explored in our cover story this week, in which we scrutinise the state of Australia’s international student recruitment two years after apocalyptic warnings about the financial impact of Covid and an eye-watering round of lay-offs.

The analysis of institutional accounts demonstrates that while there was indeed a downturn, the warnings of enormous multi-year deficits resulting from a long-term collapse in international income did not come to pass, and universities prepared for financial Armageddon with alacrity – those on the receiving end of the staffing cuts might argue too much alacrity.

Again, it would be odd to be too misanthropic about universities’ financial health being better than feared, but it is fair to question – as our cover story and some of those quoted in it do – how sensible it is for the bounce back to the “old normal” to be quite so elastic.

The Covid shutdowns demonstrated in many fields that hugely important enterprises had been built on very vulnerable foundations.

In the case of universities, that largely equates to an ever-growing number of international students, whose fees are used to subsidise everything from research to the education of their domestic classmates.

At a time when industries are rethinking supply chains and diversification strategies to ensure that they are not over-reliant on anything that could dry up overnight, this is an obvious area of risk – and one that universities are very aware of, it should be acknowledged.

However, with no alternative sources of funding available, and serious question marks over the political or economic viability of governments finding alternatives in the near-term, bouncing back seems to be the only real avenue open.

There are some quoted in our cover story who are comfortable enough with this: as one consultant puts it, “if you’re a business and you’ve got a product that’s in high demand, will grow for the next 20 years and is core to your finances, why would you walk away from that?”

Another argues that it was inevitable that universities would return to their previous markets: “If you’re trying to rebuild after something as significant as a pandemic, you go back to markets where you are known and have strong relationships.”

But others see a missed opportunity – one that they hope will be put right by the forthcoming Universities Accord funding review in Australia – to rebalance how higher education, and in particular research, are paid for, reducing the need to grow relentlessly in markets such as China.

A similar argument has been made in England for some years now, and many of the dynamics are the same. But with the political will and financial muscle for change weak for the time being, there is little sign of the sun going down on the international recruitment bonanza – instead, universities seem destined to continue walking the now familiar yellow brick road, keeping fingers crossed that those flying monkeys don’t descend again, and singing the same old song.

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