The reputation of Australia's top university could be at stake if key talent and students cannot be lured back once international travel flows normalise.
Labor MP Andrew Leigh has warned the university sector is standing at the edge of a fiscal cliff, with lower research output due to less income potentially putting at risk the ranking of the Australian National University.
Dr Leigh said Canberra's third-largest employer shed one in 10 ongoing jobs due to the pandemic, pointing out the tertiary education sector was exempt from schemes such as JobKeeper which were designed to ensure workers remained employed.
"The federal government should be working with universities more proactively to get international students back and to allow staff to come in as well," Dr Leigh said.
"For the ACT it is the third-largest employer. So it's incredibly important to the future of this city ... and it's suffering through its worst crisis in decades."
Financial figures from ANU's latest annual report show the university's operating deficit blew out to $162.4 million. The reported statutory deficit for the period was $17.7 million.
ANU confirmed 465 ongoing roles have been axed since the start of the pandemic, in most part due to the steep drop in on-campus student numbers.
ANU higher education expert Andrew Norton said universities over the pandemic had received in excess of $1.5 billion in financial support, but flagged the short- to medium-term outlook does remain challenging.
Mr Norton added the pipeline of students had been interrupted over the past two years, which will mean a drop in revenue from international cohorts would impact income set aside for research output.
Global university rankings are partly based on research.
"The extent those profits are down, that is a serious loss of research capacity," Mr Norton said.
"I strongly suspect that there will be significant loss of research staff and that will feed through to fewer research outputs in the next few years."
An expansion of international travel is poised to begin at the start December, and the Therapeutic Goods Administration has recently announced the Sinovac and the Indian AstraZeneca serum should be considered as recognised vaccines.
This would allow for the bulk of Chinese, Indian and south-east Asian students to return to Australia for studies in the coming year.
Mr Norton said it is still likely that the 2022 cohort would be lower in Australia, as a result of students opting to study in countries which were already accepting international visitors.
"I think at least temporarily we'll have lost market share because people have given up and gone somewhere else," he said.
"But on the other hand, I still think Australia has inherent advantages in its relative proximity to Asia."
Dr Leigh said the federal government changed its stance three times on universities receiving JobKeeper payments.
He also highlighted that the scheme was open to gambling giants such as Tabcorp, Crown Resorts and Star Entertainment Group.
Star Entertainment, which owns the major casinos in Sydney and Queensland, received $157.4 million in JobKeeper subsidies over the two years the scheme was available, while also paying executive bonuses.
Tabcorp raked in $12.1 million in JobKeeper over the two years, despite reporting an 8.8 per cent rise in revenue and a positive turnaround in its profit.
"Casinos [are] not adding to the innovative and productive capacity of the economy," Dr Leigh said. "It is by no means obvious that we should have been giving money to Tabcorp instead of universities."
Mr Norton flagged student numbers would not return to peak 2019 levels, but would be higher than the long-run 20-year average.
He also noted roughly 27 per cent of research funding comes from overseas student fees.
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