Education minister attempts positive spin on downturn and says he’s optimistic international students will return soon in ‘small pilot programs’
The federal education minister, Alan Tudge, has played down the economic impact of Covid-19 on Australian universities, while urging them to focus on domestic students and face-to-face learning.
Speaking at the Universities Australia conference, Tudge said he hoped international students could return in “small pilot programs” this year, describing a recent proposal from South Australia to bring back a small group of international students as “promising”.
Speaking at the conference for the first time as education minister, Tudge also said the government would consider drafting legislation to force universities to sign up to a free speech code.
While universities face losses estimated at more than $2bn in 2020-21 and slashed thousands of jobs due to border closures affecting international students, Tudge said on Thursday morning there was “relative positive news” on enrolments.
“The impact on enrolments, at least on aggregate, has not been as great as what we might have initially expected,” he said.
“I looked at the most recent figures last night, and they show that international student enrolments at university are down only 11% at this point in time compared to the same point in time in 2019.
“And now with international students comprising about 27% of all university revenue, that means … you’ve had a loss of about 3% of revenue compared to 2019 figures.”
Tudge acknowledged these were “aggregate numbers” and some universities would have suffered more. He also acknowledged “commencement figures of international students are very significantly down”.
“I appreciate that lower enrolments this year have an impact over multiple years,” he said.
Other data however suggests the number of new international students has nearly halved since 2019, including a 43,000 drop during the pandemic, between 2020 and 2021.
More than 17,000 people lost their jobs at Australian universities during the pandemic, as public universities were not able to access jobkeeper.
A recent report from Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute also found that not having international students in Australia, where they spend on retail and accommodation, would cost the broader economy nearly $20bn by next year.
International students have been able to enrol at Australian universities even as borders remain closed, with many studying online remotely.
Tudge told the conference, a gathering of vice-chancellors, university staff and educators, two small pilot programs in South Australia and New South Wales could bring international students back within months. However, he made no promises on when large numbers of students would return.
“When will the borders open? And when will we receive larger student numbers returning? I can’t answer that question,” he said.
“I don’t think anyone can say with any certainty … The budget assumption is that we’ll have large numbers of international students back again at the second half of 2022. My hope is that we’ll have smaller-scale pilots of international students in the next few months. And I received a a proposal from South Australia just last Friday, and it looks promising. NSW is also likely to propose to provide a proposal very shortly.”
Both the SA and NSW plans would require federal government approval before they can go ahead.
The SA plan would quarantine students in buildings at Parafield airport, outside of the hotel quarantine system. NSW would quarantine students in empty student accommodation, also outside of the hotel quarantine system, with one 600-bed site already earmarked.
Tudge said the government wants to see 10 million international students studying for Australian qualifications, either online or in person, within 10 years.
But he said universities should work to diversify to reduce reliance on China and India, which account for 55% of current international students.
“Not only does this limit the diversity of perspectives in classrooms, but it also lowers the resilience of our universities to changes in global demand,” he said. “So I’m asking you to please think deeply about how we can do this.”
But the minister also called on universities to start prioritising Australian domestic students, including “a return of the previous face-to-face learning where Covid rules allow”.
“Public universities were initially established for one purpose, and that was to educate Australians,” he said.
Tudge said he had heard from “too many” students and parents who wanted more face-to-face learning.
“When you look at the student experience surveys based on last year’s experience, they weren’t great,” he said. “And we understand there were obvious reasons for that.
“But I am still hearing from too many students directly, or their parents, and I hear this all the time, who tell me that their usual student experience has still not returned. They may have got only one contact hour per week – despite the fact that when they enrolled in the particular course, there was an expectation that this was a course which had tutorials and lectures in person.
“This must start with a return of the previous face-to-face learning where Covid rules allow. Clearly that can’t happen in Victoria right now.”
Tudge concluded his remarks by asking universities to sign up to the French model code on free speech – a voluntary code developed by former high court chief justice Robert French after the government set up an inquiry into university freedom of speech.
The minister said eight universities had not yet signed up to the code, and threatened “all options”, including legislation, to enforce it.
“I want to see the model code implemented fully this year – with no more excuses,” he said. “You’re all committed to do this. And if it comes apparent that universities remain unable or unwilling to adopt the model code, we will be examining all options available to governments to enforce it, which may include legislation.”
Tanya Plibersek will also address the conference on Thursday, pledging to restore Australia’s universities “to their rightful place” if Labor wins the next federal election.
The shadow education minister will say that universities would have access to Labor’s $15bn national reconstruction fund to “translate your brilliant discoveries and inventions into new Australian businesses and new Australian jobs”.
While Labor is yet to address funding for the sector substantively, Plibersek’s speech also contains a hint on uncapping places.
She will note access to places is a “growing problem” that Labor will work with the sector to resolve because “every Australian kid who works hard and gets the marks should have a chance to go to university – if they want to”.