Higher education has been one of the hardest-hit sectors of Australia’s entire economy throughout the pandemic. Higher education lost 35,000 jobs in the year ending November 2020 – reflecting the catastrophic failure of the Coalition government to include universities in the JobKeeper program, and the loss of international students. At a moment when the need for Australians to gain new skills is probably more acute than at any other time in a generation, this avoidable crisis in Australian higher education reflects a terrible error of judgment on the government’s part.
It is particularly perverse for the government to talk about investing in skills, even as it continues to neglect the higher education sector. Tens of thousands of our most qualified and highly skilled educators, researchers, and professional staff have lost their jobs. The tertiary education sector’s exemption from the government’s JobKeeper wage subsidy was arbitrary, ideological and cruel.
Incredibly, this budget will make matters worse. The budget confirms the cessation of special measures to preserve research capacity at universities as international student numbers (and fee receipts) dropped during the pandemic. This means that Commonwealth payments to universities will actually fall by 9.3% over the forward estimates, despite the continuing crisis in higher education. The only new spending for universities announced in the budget is $9.4 million to support online and offshore education models, and an extension to the FEE-HELP loan fee exemption by six months (costing only $300,000). Describing these measures as band-aids would be generous: for universities, the slogan ‘we are all in this together’ therefore rings especially hollow.
The damage to Australia’s ongoing research and economic capacity that has occurred on this government’s watch through its neglect of the university sector is incalculable. A genuine recovery for tertiary education will require durable and ongoing funding to make the university sector sustainable and reduce its long-standing overreliance on international student fees. In turn, stabilising and strengthening higher education and research would have knock-on benefits for Australian productivity and innovation throughout the economy.