“AUSTRALIA is a global success story when it comes to education,” wrote consultancy firm Ernst and Young in a 2018 report.

Earning $26 billion a year, education was our third largest export industry, the report said. Numbers of full-fee-paying international students increased tenfold between 1994 and 2018, to make up nearly a quarter of students on Australian campuses.

Hundreds of thousands of young people were drawn here by the desire to study in a relatively safe English-speaking country, but also by the reputation of our universities for excellence in teaching and research.

That reputation is now at risk.

In its outlining of possible future scenarios for Australian universities, the Ernst and Young report identified a number of challenges and opportunities facing the sector, most of them related to the impact of ongoing technological transformation on learning and on the nature of work.

Like most of us who have written risk management plans in recent years, the consultants did not include in their scenarios a global pandemic that would shut down international travel for an indeterminate period.

That, combined with radical changes the federal government is seeking to introduce, has put Australian universities in their most precarious position ever.

As with so many areas of our society, the pandemic has exposed cracks in our tertiary education system that will be difficult, perhaps in some cases impossible, to repair.

Universities across the country are shedding staff and slashing programs. Sydney’s Macquarie University, for example, is set to cut entire degrees in mathematics and science, as well as half the current majors offered by the arts faculty, according to a report last week in the Guardian.

The reliance on income from international students was probably always going to be unsustainable in the long term, but its sudden collapse poses a huge threat to the future of Australian research across all fields, including medicine.

Australia’s leading research universities, the Group of Eight, estimate they have lost $1.5 billion in research funds as a result of the drop-off in international students, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

On top of that, there is the increasing casualisation of teaching roles that has been eroding standards and damaging morale in our universities for years.

The exclusion of staff at public universities from the federal JobKeeper scheme during the current pandemic has been the death knell for many nascent careers. Large numbers of younger researchers across all fields are likely to head overseas or abandon hope of an academic career entirely.

And then we have the federal government’s proposed changes to university fees that will see the cost of some degrees more than double, while others fall. The humanities will be the biggest loser if the government gets its way, while the cost of most STEM degrees will fall, and medical degrees will stay more or less the same.

The devaluing of the humanities has broader consequences than just the fact fewer students may choose to study history, politics or the creative arts. Tech giants like Google and Microsoft deliberately hire a proportion of arts graduates to help ensure they have the most productive and creative teams.

A clever, innovative society is one that fosters inquiry and collaboration across disciplines. Nowhere is that more obvious than in public health.

As our human societies face unprecedented challenges, we need those kinds of exchanges more than ever. A thriving education sector will be essential to that.

Tomorrow’s federal budget may offer some relief, but the fight to save our universities will likely be with us for some time.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.




The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.

One thought on “What now for Australia’s universities?

  1. Brett Lidbury says:

    Thank you for this timely article – as always, thought provoking.

    I must say that I’m tired of the ” … head overseas …” narrative, that has been constant for as long as I can remember in Australian research and university life. The end of ” … nascent careers …”, concerns me more, and as always, is a feature of the non-creative way universities have dealt with funding challenges – i.e. sack the most vulnerable (read younger) staff through no fault of their own (e.g. when they were born not coinciding with past tenure opportunities).

    As for the overseas narrative, the pressures on staffing due to COVID-19 will be felt globally, and not only in Australia. Within my academic field (biomedicine), there is an oversupply of PhD graduates in comparable countries where our home-grown academics will often consider continuing their career; in the USA for example, it is not unusual for a faculty position to attract 300 – 400 applicants, and reasonably, they would most likely employ local candidates.

    The real tragedy is that promising academic careers may end prematurely and unnecessarily. Surely among creative and intelligent university communities, other options can be found?

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