Why aren't universities liked by Coalition governments?
It's a good question, particularly when you look at the educational benefits bestowed on members of our government.
Scott Morrison, an honours degree in science from UNSW! Josh Frydenberg has four degrees, two from Monash, one from Oxford and one from Harvard; Mathias Cormann, two; Dan Tehan, three; Marise Payne, two; Simon Birmingham's website says an MBA from Adelaide but surely there was something before that; Christian Porter, four; Greg Hunt at least three.
There's a truck load of social and cultural capital in that lot. It's not just what you learn at university, the academic inquiry, the critical thinking skills, the research-informed teaching, it's also the connections you make. Over the years, I've worked with so many people I met at university (and married one). And having a degree confers special powers - it makes you more employable, more likely to get a job than someone without. Universities teach a range of disciplines which are crucial to the economy, especially now. Health practitioners of all kinds, engineers, architects, lawyers, accountants.
So why is it that this government is refusing to rescue one of the hardest hit sectors in Australia? Why doesn't it consider education to be an essential service?
The sector has been frozen out of JobKeeper (in fact the scheme has been rejigged three times to ensure the vast majority of university employees aren't eligible). It's like a war on these institutions.
There is, I think, a genuine belief in government that universities are not as badly off as those sectors JobKeeper supports - but there's more than that. Some in the Coalition see universities as the enemy, once a domain for the wealthy elite (see my non-exhaustive list above), now for everyone. Perhaps these politicians see universities as a way of undermining their world view, their way of thinking, corrupting their children, corrupting their institutions. But it's their children who are at risk now. Nearly six out of 10 Australian 22 year olds will have enrolled in a university degree. How lucky are they to have that opportunity? As Sue Goodwin, professor of policy studies at the University of Sydney says, Australia already had a problem, a youth 'NEET' (not in education, employment or training) problem. At the start of 2020, youth unemployment rate was 12.5 per cent. Now there are predictions of 30 per cent. Those young people deserve university places. As Goodwin says, we need a UniKeeper program.
The big financial gap is mostly about the disappearance of international students, the ones the Prime Minister told to go home a few weeks ago. The ones who couldn't get access to any kind of support. These days, universities fund their teaching and research through the generosity of the parents of international students, who pay much more than domestic students for the same degree. That's because successive government policy settings have forced the sector to look elsewhere for funding.
Already major research projects have been put on hold, so many excellent casual teachers have been frozen out of institutions where they've taught for years.
Now more than six million Australians are on JobKeeper and another 1.6 million are on JobSeeker, according to Thursday's jobless figures. Nearly 600,000 Australians lost their jobs last month. Many will wait years for new jobs while the economy recovers. What will they do while they wait? If they can't earn, they will learn.
Universities Australia, higher education's peak body, says members are projected to have an average shortfall of between $77 million and $118 million for each of the body's 39 members. So that's a predicted loss of between $3 billion and $5 billion this year, expected to grow to $13 billion to $15 billion in the next two years. So much money gone and I fear that teaching and research will also go. Already major research projects have been put on hold, so many excellent casual teachers have been frozen out of institutions where they've taught for years.
Andrew Norton, now a professor of higher education policy at the Australian National University and former higher education wrangler at the Grattan Institute, says extending JobKeeper would be pointless. As he points out, that scheme stops in four months and the problem facing universities is a multi-year challenge. He predicts it will be three years before the international student market recovers. In the meantime, domestic student numbers will soar because there are no jobs. So, first step is to fund the universities for those students. He also says the government should guarantee research continuity for projects which already have Australian Research Council or National Health and Medical Research Council grants.
"This would target high quality projects, and have the side effect of leaving universities with more resources to support other work they deem as a high priority.
We don't want currently funded research projects to fall over. It wastes years of work," he said.
The National Tertiary Education Union and universities have agreed on a national framework for wage cuts of up to 15 per cent but each campus will have to vote whether to accept. It's likely the wealthier universities will just delay other expenditure while the regional universities may be decimated. Those universities are the lifeblood of their regions and Central Queensland, Charles Darwin and James Cook universities are struggling (Michael McCormack, do you think that's OK?). But how extraordinary to see an attempt to save thousands of jobs, in the face of government inertia.
Universities are urgently trying to innovate on the hop, including marketing microcredentials and other short courses, to make up for the huge dent in income.
But the government is trying to force innovation by stealth, decimating an industry which benefits everyone. Ask your doctor if you don't believe me.
- Jenna Price is a Canberra Times columnist and an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.