Headwinds are blowing strongly against the university sector in 2020. The coronavirus crisis has switched off the flow of international students and hampered other revenue sources.
Australian universities could lose up to $16 billion in revenue by 2023, with up to $4.8 billion lost in 2020 alone, if Universities Australia estimates come to fruition. Institutions have been left without access to JobKeeper, forced to slash spending and ride out the storm.
Now the sector has been tossed another challenge: figuring out what the government's job-ready graduates reforms will mean for its domestic students. It's been three weeks since Education Minister Dan Tehan unveiled the policy, and such is the complexity of the university funding system that institutions are still wading through the fine details.
The government has made it clear it wants to funnel students into practical degrees that will make them employable. It has identified science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects as national priorities. It also wants to boost the ranks of teachers, nurses, psychologists and other health professionals to meet future skills needs.
Some elements of the package have been well-received by the sector. Additional support for regional and remote students to transition to university is welcome, as are guaranteed places for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from remote areas, says Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson.
"We also welcome the return of indexation. Indexation has been off the table for a while and we are really pleased indexation is back on the table," Jackson says.
"That just means universities can keep pace with increasing costs."
The package boasts 12,000 extra university places upfront, and 39,000 extra places by 2023. Ms Jackson says it's hard to know whether this will be enough to keep up with an increase in domestic demand as school-leavers cancel their gap years and others continue their education in the face of a bleak jobs market.
"Some universities are saying it's 25 per cent, some are saying 35 per cent, some are saying 50 per cent, some are saying even more than that," she says.
"Until we get to the stage where we've got people actually lining up to enrol in the next semester or start of next year, it will be hard to put an absolutely solid figure on that, but we do know there is a very significant jump."
Then comes the question of which degrees students decide to enrol in. With discounts on the way for STEM-based subjects, as well as teaching, nursing and clinical psychology courses, the government is desperately pointing to the areas it sees as worthy of support. Meanwhile, future communications and social, political and behavioural sciences students will be slugged with a 113 per cent increase in fees, while economics and law tuition fees will increase by 28 per cent.
The economist who designed the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, Professor Bruce Chapman, is unconvinced this will encourage or dissuade people from signing up for various disciplines. He says the nature of income-contingent loans ensures price is not a significant factor when students are deciding what to study. Their aptitudes, interests, career prospects and the educational attainment of their parents are certainly factors, but not a loan that will be paid off in the seemingly distant future if and when the graduate can pay.
To say that a change in fees will result in people rushing to sign up for the study areas of national priority ignores a lot of the reasons students don't choose these courses in first place. In the case of STEM subjects, the work starts much earlier in the education journey, when secondary students are encouraged to study senior chemistry, biology and physics subjects.
Meanwhile, nursing and teaching graduates are struggling to attract students with the right academic background to cope with the demands of these degrees and the important careers which follow. Earning-potential data doesn't necessarily line up with the areas of priority. The Graduate Outcomes Survey shows that three years out from graduation, humanities, culture and social science students earn a median salary of $70,300, while science and mathematics students earn $68,900.
The courses of national priority have been clumsily selected, and in many cases are undermined by an overall reduction of funding when the Commonwealth and student contributions are added up. Mr Tehan has argued this new funding arrangement better aligns with what it actually costs to teach each course. The figures were derived from the latest Deloitte Transparency in Higher Education Expenditure study, which only 32 universities participated in and involved international enrolments. This one-size-fits-all arrangement doesn't allow for the specialisations and variations to course delivery that occur around the country.
The reduction in funding for many subjects has left university deans scratching their heads, wondering where the cuts are meant to come from. For example, Council of Deans of Nursing and Midwifery chairwoman Professor Tracey Moroney says nursing schools have already been cut down to the bone.
"I would say most schools of nursing have such high staff-to-student ratios that they use the casualised workforce and there is no reduction in this or quality will be affected," Moroney says.
This is happening while the universities are trying to cut spending as the economic downturn grinds on.
National Tertiary Education Union ACT division secretary Dr Cathy Day says the failure to provide any meaningful support to the tertiary education sector is of great concern to members, who are already facing the prospect of tens of thousands of job losses.
"University workers were hoping to receive a helping hand from the government, but that hand only delivered another slap to our faces," she says.