The sharp fall in international students, the hits to university revenue, and an apparently unfriendly government, have exacerbated an existential crisis. So whither Australia’s universities?
On an autumn morning early in first semester, the grounds of the University of Melbourne should be buzzing with youthful curiosity and adventure. Instead, the bike racks of Tin Alley and the dining tables outside Union House are mostly vacant.
A smattering of students sit outside scrolling on their phones and waiting for the few contact classes on offer. Some wear face masks, though social distancing is no challenge.
COVID-19 has smashed higher education in Australia, our closed borders a disaster for universities that have grown reliant on international student fees for as much as a third of their revenue.
The sector has already lost billions and responded by axing thousands of jobs and subjects. The futures of students, foreign and domestic, hang in the balance.
Worse is to come as COVID-19 and souring relations with China converge as a major threat to Australia’s fourth-largest – and Victoria’s largest – export industry. Yet from the outset of the pandemic, the Morrison government has seemed unfussed by the sector’s plight.
It told international students to “go home” and universities to become less reliant on them. It denied public universities access to COVID-19 job subsidies, cracked down on partnerships with foreign countries and changed federal funding rules to more than double fees for arts studies such as politics and communications.
To some university leaders and observers, such as Grattan Institute chief executive Danielle Wood, the federal government’s response has felt more like a political reckoning than an assistance package.
“My impression is there was a somewhat fractious relationship between the government and the sector before COVID. I think that coloured the government’s decisions,” she says.
“The purpose of our public universities is to teach Australian students, and we shouldn’t forget that.”
Federal education minister Alan Tudge
Monash vice-chancellor and president of the Group of Eight university lobby Margaret Gardner says the crisis is the most dire since federal funds were slashed after World War II.
But it’s not just a financial crisis. It’s an existential one.
The universities are under fire for their obsession with international rankings, their corporate-style senior salaries and sidelining of traditional teaching and learning. COVID has been a catalyst for questions about the reliance on international students but also commercialisation, the quality of education and the very mission of universities: business, public education provider, a place to learn a trade or to work out how to think?
Third year arts students Hannah Moshinsky and Ruby Peer are on campus at Melbourne Uni, but only to visit the library. They’re frustrated that a year after COVID forced them to remote online learning, they have no contact classes – the “live uni experience” they crave.
Victoria’s oldest university continues to spruik its “virtual campus” as the way to be “more connected than ever”, words that ring hollow with Moshinsky.
She suspects online learning is now a convenience for a university run as a corporation: “I feel very much like a commodity in their system.”
The crisis and beyond
Di Zhang had completed just one year of her strategic communications management course at Monash when she flew to China in January 2020 for a family holiday. She hasn’t been back.
For the rest of the year the 24-year-old paid $17,500 per semester for a course she was forced to do online without the teaching support and cultural experience that drew her to Melbourne in the first place.
“It’s already been a year and they [Australian governments] don’t have any arrangements for international students to come back,” Zhang says from her home in China’s Shaanxi province . “I don’t think Australia has given international students much hope.
The dearth of students in our streets has pummelled university coffers and the local economy, especially in Victoria and the Melbourne CBD where foreign students represented 40 per cent of a booming pre-COVID population.
In response, universities have slashed an estimated 17,300 jobs: professors, tutors, administrative staff, cleaners. By February, La Trobe had shed about 200, Melbourne 198, Monash 277, Deakin 300, Swinburne 150 and Victoria University 79. Staff at Monash and La Trobe took a pay cut to stem the job losses.
Hundreds of subjects have gone: more than 600 at Monash alone, including musicology and religious studies; the neuropsychology masters at La Trobe; the landscape architecture masters at Deakin; Chinese, Japanese and Italian at Swinburne. More look set to go. As The Age reveals today, the University of Melbourne told staff it needs to scrap several science subjects as part of its cost-cutting measures.
In an interview with The Age, Education Minister Alan Tudge acknowledges the sector faces the “most fiscally challenging time of the last decade” but insists it is “not a catastrophe”.
“At the end of the day, the purpose of our public universities is to teach Australian students, and we shouldn’t forget that, and the universities shouldn’t forget that.”
Tudge highlights that, despite COVID-19, universities have posted operating surpluses for 2020, as high as $259 million in the case of Monash: “I’m not denying that there are fiscal challenges … but let’s keep perspective on this.”
Gardner acknowledges online enrolments ended up higher than expected in early 2020, but also notes there were major savings with physical campuses basically closed, capital spending more than halved and salary increases deferred.
Still, revenue was down 11 per cent and will decline further in 2021 and 2022, a forecast echoed by La Trobe vice-chancellor John Dewar, who says the fall will continue for at least another three to four years. He says it is “completely unfair” to blame universities for their current revenue problems when Coalition and Labor governments over 30 years “encouraged” reliance on international fees.
In 2019 Federation (44.9 per cent), RMIT (38.4 per cent) and Monash (36 per cent) were the Victorian universities most reliant on international fees.
In an analysis for The Age, Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute also forecasts international enrolments declining and by January 2022 down to less than half pre-COVID levels, with new enrolments falling to make up for students completing courses.
While more students stuck offshore have continued studying online than were expected to, they’re at home in India or China and not spending here on rent, food and entertainment.
At its height in 2019, international education was worth $40 billion to the Australian economy. The Mitchell Institute forecasts a crash of almost $18 billion, or about 45 per cent, by the end of 2021, with Victoria’s share of the decline estimated at $6 billion.
Enrolments and university revenue are also susceptible to deteriorating relations with China, and new foreign interference laws that give Canberra retrospective power to cancel lucrative university agreements with what are deemed hostile foreign entities.
The sector fears losing international students to competitors such as Canada and Britain, which have encouraged internationals to stay and have also welcomed newcomers – although this risk may be mitigated by our reputation for containing COVID.
“It was personally felt by students, who felt they’d been tricked into feeling that they were … part of an Australian community.”
Dr Angela Lehmann from the international education consultancy the Lygon Group
In October, international education consultancy the Lygon Group polled 410 current and prospective students from India to find one in four were thinking of studying elsewhere. A separate poll on China’s Weibo platform in September found 68 per cent of students enrolled in Australia would choose Canada if they had their time again.
After a year waiting for Australia to reopen its borders, Di Zhang had had enough. She will be one of those who does not come back. She has applied for an early exit from her Monash course.
“It’s just not fair on international students to be treated like this,” she says.
Tough talk and strange decisions
A year ago this week as COVID-19 began to bite in Australia, the Morrison government told international students to “go home” if they could not support themselves.
“That was a complete turning point,” says the Lygon Group’s Dr Angela Lehmann. “It was personally felt by students, who felt that they’d been tricked into feeling that they were welcome as a part of an Australian community.”
It was the first of a series of government responses likely to make 2020 a landmark year in Australian universities’ history.
In late March the government introduced the $130 billion JobKeeper program, the centrepiece of its relief plan aimed at keeping Australians in work. Multiple times it varied the rules, resulting in public universities not qualifying for the subsidy.
Private universities, on the other hand, were granted easier access.
Last year the government denied that public universities had been subject to special, negative treatment.Nonetheless, the sector read the government’s handling of the program as a sign of antagonism.
“There had to be a basis for that decision,” Gardner says, “but what was it? That question has never been answered.”
Grattan’s Danielle Wood says the JobKeeper decision was “strange”: “It seemed that not all jobs were viewed as equal.”
Then, in October, the government legislated its “Job-ready Graduates” reform, which included a much welcomed, one-off $1 billion grant for research, but which controversially reorganised government funding of student places to favour disciplines deemed more “job-relevant”, such as science, maths and healthcare.
In theory the change, which includes indexed funding, will result in 100,000 new university places over a decade. Fees for science and other favoured courses have been slashed but for humanities more than doubled.
The reforms eventually got qualified backing from the sector lobby group Universities Australia, but have been criticised for building unfairness into fees, with scant evidence that science graduates are really more employable than those with arts degrees. And they have riled critics who believe universities should offer more than vocational training.
“Did they just pluck that out of their clacker, mate?” crossbench Senator Jacqui Lambie asked last year about the modelling behind the Job-ready package.
Gardner insists humanities graduates are just as likely to find work as science and engineering ones. The ABC/RMIT fact-checked her to find that, in fact, humanities graduates have slightly higher employment rates than science graduates.
Australian National University professor in higher education Andrew Norton also queries Job-ready’s assumptions about the employability of science graduates. “It seemed to be intuitive, like someone in government thought this was a good thing without actually investigating the employment outcomes.”
Wisdom or widgets
In 1916, as editor of Melbourne University Magazine, a young Robert Menzies championed the social sciences and bemoaned a government preference for “utility that expresses itself in iron and steel”.
Before going on to be a Liberal hero and our longest-serving prime minister, Menzies studied Latin, the history of Britain and of Roman law – the kind of subjects that prepared one for civic life.
Twenty-three of the 24 current Liberal ministers are university graduates and a good few have multiple qualifications, with BAs and law degrees plentiful. Tudge has a BA from Melbourne and an MBA from Harvard. Why the apparent ill-feeling towards universities, and arts subjects in particular?
Part of the answer appears to be that, while both Coalition and Labor pushed universities to be less reliant on public funds in recent decades, neither is completely comfortable with the resulting independence.
In government after World War II Menzies extended the reach of higher education, which Gough Whitlam’s Labor government also sought to do by abolishing fees in 1974. The Hawke government broadened access through HECS loans while pressuring universities to be more entrepreneurial, hence the hunt for fee-paying international students.
Enrolments more than quadrupled to 1.4 million between 1989 and 2017, more than a quarter of them international.
While federal funding remained steady through that period, the federal share of overall sector revenue declined dramatically to about 30 per cent. International students’ fees – often three times the domestic rate – made up much of the shortfall.
Those fees also gave universities wealth, a corporate culture reflected in corporation-sized vice-chancellor salaries, and some independence from government.
“As unis diversified their income they could do things that governments didn’t always like,” says universities historian and Melbourne University senior lecturer Gwilym Croucher.
Opposition education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek, for instance, says Labor supports public universities but not the exorbitant salaries which work against the sector’s standing with MPs and the community. But she says the Coalition’s attitude is now one of “outright hostility”.
Arguably the growth of higher education and its opening to the wider public has worked against conservative interests because academics – especially in the arts – tend to be centre/left-leaning, and university-educated voters increasingly vote Labor.
Does the Coalition have a problem with progressives in universities?
Liberal stalwart Phil Honeywood was tertiary education minister in the Kennett government of the 1990s and is now chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, representing private and public colleges and universities.
“It’s well known that universities tend to be very strong on social issues and tend to lead on social policy change,” Honeywood says. “Often that policy focus is at odds with the policies that the Coalition parties are championing. The relationship between the government and public universities is a difficult one and, as always, there are two sides to the story.”
Even university leaders accept their sector is not good at communicating with conservative governments. Last month La Trobe’s Dewar told The Age that universities needed to “get better” at addressing the government’s negative perceptions of them.
La Trobe Emeritus Professor of politics and author Judith Brett says the sector is “unable to defend itself” partly because it’s now an “unstable public and private hybrid”.
“They use one argument when it suits them, ‘we’re running a major corporation’ , then they go with their hands out to say ‘we need more public money’.”
Then there is hard political reality. In recent decades the Coalition has won support in electorates with low levels of university qualifications and where voters are more likely to be interested in trade training than Roman law.
In their triumphant 1996 election campaign John Howard’s Liberals became the party of the “battler” and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s political messaging is in the Howard mould.
“The Coalition seems to be wanting to appear to only back vocational education, not universities,” Plibersek tells The Age. “They’re trying to paint unis as elitist institutions.”
At the coalface
On a chilly lockdown morning mid-last year, geography professor Louise Johnson was waiting for takeaway coffee when she was summoned at short notice to an online chat with university management.
In a scripted briefing, Johnson was shown a chart of jobs after a COVID-induced restructure. Hers wasn’t on it.
“After 40 years of high-achieving service to universities I was reduced to an absence on a diagram via a Zoom meeting,” she says.
Now an honorary Deakin academic, Johnson acknowledges some COVID-era austerity was necessary, but says the cuts were part of a long decline in the quality of university education.
Like Tudge and Brett, she says universities are partly to blame for their current problems, pointing to a “cancerous” cycle of chasing foreign student fees to fund the research volumes needed for global rankings aimed at securing yet more international students.
COVID aside, she says, too much teaching is now online, impersonal, inferior and left to an increasingly casualised, overworked and exploited sessional staff.
Johnson is unusually open about her time teaching international students, describing it as “a really mixed experience”.
“Some students have been fabulously engaged. But I’ve also had cohorts in my class who had no idea what I was talking about, couldn’t read what I was asking them to read, and who certainly could not write in a way that I regard as university standard.”
Where Johnson diverges with Tudge is that she, like Dewar, ultimately blames governments – Coalition and Labor – for pushing universities down a corporate path into “Uberised” education. She says the Morrison reforms of the past year will only make things worse.
“Many students just want a meal ticket and that’s what governments are telling them they should be getting. It’s not about learning, not about critical thinking. It’s not about an informed citizenship.”
The way forward
After almost a decade in coal mining, Adam Lines wants to study philosophy and politics.
The young engineer has looked at the future of his industry to conclude his prospects are better if he transfers to humanities. “I likely won’t have a career in coal in 10 to 15 years,” he says from Moranbah in Queensland.
When Lines decided last year to enrol in humanities, starting in 2021 at the University of Queensland, his degree was set to cost about $20,400. He reviewed the idea when the government’s Job-ready policy more than doubled the price to almost $43,500 and $58,000 for honours.
“I don’t think it’s an accident that they [the government] chose to increase the cost of law and economics and philosophy,” Lines says. “It’s an extension of the culture wars.”
Lines started to look at equivalent degrees overseas, a confronting twist in the Australian university story which for so long has been about international students being lured here by our reputation for top-shelf research.
His comments also reinforce that universities are what Croucher calls “contested” and “not settled” institutions, their role constantly under review and subject to the politics of the day.
Tudge holds up the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which generates $2.5 billion in commercial revenue a year through partnerships with business – about the same as Melbourne University’s annual income – as his exemplar for the future. “What it shows is that if we do more of that, it’s not only beneficial for our nation and our economy, and for the products that it produces, but equally it can be a third revenue source for our universities.”
Gardner welcomes more industry partnership but calls on the government to recognise Australia has “among the top [university] systems in the world” and resist abandoning international education. “It produces a level of vibrancy in the region that is really important to the future success of our people.”
Johnson says neither the government nor the universities are facing up to the deterioration in the quality of learning on the ground. “Governments have to recognise they need to fund the system properly if they want real world-class education,” she says.
Lines has opted to enrol in a highly regarded and well-resourced online philosophy and politics degree at the University of London. Price tag? About $10,000, including an honours subject – just one-fifth of the cost of the Australian equivalent.
“I thought, ‘OK we’re in a global education market. Let’s look beyond Australia’.”
Docente - Investigadora Educativa.
Doctora en Cs. de la Educación, Magíster en Desarrollo Curricular y Licenciada en Relaciones Industriales.