Australian research and education is facing the “most significant threat since the Second World War”, says the chair of the Group of Eight universities, Margaret Gardner.
Australian research and higher education is facing the “most significant threat since the Second World War”, says the chair of the Group of Eight, Margaret Gardner.
Speaking to The Australian Financial Review ahead of The AFR Higher Education Summit, Professor Gardner said the combination of COVID-19 and proposed changes to fees and subsidies made conditions “the severest I have ever seen”.
“This is many orders of magnitude worse than anything universities have seen before.”
The higher-education sector is trapped between falling international income, a massive budget deficit which squeezes money for research, and the Jobs-ready Graduates legislation which will reduce income from teaching domestic students, she said.
But the effects will be most seriously felt in research budgets that are financed out of the discretionary income of universities, funds which have been wiped out by the closure of borders to international students.
Group of Eight universities alone will lose $2.2 billion this year and, apart from job losses among teaching and support staff, the fixed-term contracts of 4000 researchers will end between now and the beginning of March, with no likelihood of them being renewed.
Universities Australia, which represents all public universities warns that up to 11,000 jobs will be lost across the sector.
“All organisations and people are wrestling with COVID and universities aren’t alone in this,” says Professor Gardner, who is also the chancellor of Monash University.
“But universities are so dependent for the quality of education and research on international students and the impact of losing that is the severest I have ever seen.
Australia is in a great position, it does have world-class research. But it is in peril.
— Group of Eight chair Margaret Gardner
“It’s not as if we can look around us and say the government has seen the difficulty and is committed to our assistance. We are still waiting for assistance.”
She said she found it hard to watch as JobKeeper payments went to some higher-education organisations, but not public universities. New York University in Sydney gets JobKeeper for its Australian staff.
Backing up Professor Gardner, education expert Andrew Norton says the government is “clearly not interested in coming to universities’ support”. Since the pandemic started, the education minister has overlooked four opportunities to support universities: JobKeeper in March, emergency money at Easter, the Jobs-ready Graduates Bill last week and an absence of commitments to universities in pre-budget statements.
Professor Gardner said if she had a chance to put an argument to cabinet she would point out Australian research is working on discoveries that will help overcome COVID-19.
The UK, Canada and France recognised the role their universities have in combating the pandemic and reviving their economies and were increasing money for university research budgets this year.
Australia should be putting more money than these other countries into universities because universities here do proportionately more research than the private sector in other countries. Total R&D spending by business in Australia is less than 1.8 per cent of GDP, compared with 2.4 per cent in the OECD. The slack here is taken up by the higher-education sector.
“People don’t understand that the money spent at universities goes straight back to Australia. That investment goes right to the point which we can see tangibly with COVID.”
Professor Paul Young and associate professor Keith Chappell at the University of Queensland — a member of the Go8 — are running a phase one clinical trial of a COVID vaccine with first results expected in November.
The negative perception of universities in the competition for public resources has plagued the Go8 at numerous levels. When universities argued for the reopening of international borders, it was described as universities looking after their own needs, Professor Gardner said, even though the Go8 argued the obvious point: opening borders is good for the whole economy.
It’s expected the October 6 budget will reveal a net migration outflow for 2020-2021 reversing decades of inflow.
Professor Gardner said people migrate to Australia, get an education and become the skilled workers of the next generation. Migrants educated by Australian universities are entwined in economic growth “in a way that is not fully appreciated”.
The net population outflow was likely to include researchers whose contracts have expired.
In its pre-budget submission to government, the Go8 said as money dried up and researchers lost their jobs the risk was they would leave Australia permanently: there is “nothing more portable than the human brain”.
“That is where research resides and works. If it is undervalued; if it is not funded as is required; if it is made redundant then numerous other nations are waiting with the funding, the labs and the standard of living to pounce on that brain and secure it.”
“Without the research capacity in Australian universities, the nation cannot successfully emerge from this pandemic with a robust economic future,” it said.
Professor Gardner said: “We are at a time when we need to build ourselves up to get out of this pandemic. We need to invest in the things that will drive new industry and create new jobs.”
“Australia is in a great position, it does have world-class research. But it is in peril.”