“My biggest concern is just the long-term viability of research endeavours as a sector because once it goes it’s very hard to get back. You can’t just turn research on and off like a tap.”
“Given the lack of clarity about research funding for the future, we’re starting to ask quite difficult questions about the extent to which we can continue to conduct the range of the research we do now at Sydney.”
Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge said the government was providing $20.4 billion in funding to the higher education sector this year, which included the $1 billion in the October budget for research.
“It’s important to note Australia’s universities remain relatively financially healthy, with many reporting surpluses in 2020,” Mr Tudge said.
The budget revealed the federal government now expects permanent migrants and international students to begin gradually returning from mid-2022 — a year later than it had forecast in the October budget — with small pilot programs for students expected to commence later this year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed universities’ over-reliance on international students to prop up their operating revenues and cross-subsidise research, with most institutions forced to embark on cost-saving measures last year including pausing infrastructure spending and cutting jobs.
Some universities have defied their own dire financial predictions, including Monash and Melbourne University, to post surpluses last year, while others reported smaller than expected losses, such as the University of Sydney which had a $2.2 million deficit. The ANU, RMIT, Swinburne and La Trobe University also posted losses.
But the latest federal government data shows there were 43,000 fewer international students enrolled in February compared with the same time last year, indicating universities face a major challenge in recruiting new overseas students while borders remain closed.
Labor education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek said the government had failed universities in the budget.
“Scott Morrison wants the economic benefit of Australia’s brilliant university researchers, but he’s not prepared to protect their jobs,” Ms Plibersek said.
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