Universities face more financial pain as federal funding is slashed and international students are barred from entering Australian until mid-2022, Canberra university leaders have warned.
Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt said he was deeply concerned that the 2021-22 federal budget did not address the financial shock universities suffered because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"With borders to be closed for longer than we were expecting according to the government, that catastrophic shock is going to even be worse than we were expecting," Professor Schmidt said.
Spending on higher education will decrease by 8.3 per cent in real terms from 2020-21 to 2021-22 as extra research funding for COVID-19 dries up.
Higher education funding will decrease by 9.3 per cent in real terms over the forward estimates to 2024-25 as the Coalition's job ready graduate's package takes effect, pushing a greater portion of the cost of education onto Australian students.
University of Canberra vice-chancellor Paddy Nixon said he was not surprised that universities were overlooked in Tuesday's budget.
"It is disappointing that the sector that will be part and parcel of rebuilding the economy and certainly responding to some of the major challenges flagged in the budget seems to see no response in the budget," he said.
Professor Nixon said it was "a very worrying signal" that Australia's borders were set to be opened later than expected, causing a major hit to revenue from full-fee paying international students.
"Next year when we enter into semester one all universities will be looking at their cohort of international students and it will be declining which ultimately means a knock-on effect not just for next year but for years to come because this is a pipeline issue," he said.
The budget set aside funding for international student pilot programs, but Professor Nixon said the plan from Canberra universities and the ACT government was still sitting with the federal government. He said overseas students were choosing to study in other English-speaking countries, such as Ireland.
Professor Schmidt said Australia should take a selective approach in returning international students by recognising that some countries have virtually no community transmission. He said the ANU was looking at ways to diversify its income, including through philanthropy and creating startup businesses to monetise research.
Universities Australia's chief executive Catriona Jackson said the border closure posed very serious challenges for the nation's universities.
"The sector took a $1.8 billion revenue hit last year. Universities Australia estimates another $2 billion will be lost this year - against 2019 actual operating revenue," Ms Jackson said.
"Australia's university sector cannot sustain these losses without serious damage to national productivity and the country's knowledge base."
Senator Zed Seselja said the government supported universities last year by guaranteeing funding levels.
"I accept there is some serious funding pressures at the moment. Brian Schmidt is advocating very strongly for the ANU and doing that job admirably and I think one of the real task for us will be working together to make sure that over time we're able to bring back international students and improve that funding model."
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