education minister dan tehan
Minister for Education Dan Tehan

While the government has given the university sector a lifeline with its Easter funding announcement, the opportunity presented by the pandemic crisis for a fundamental reset in our thinking about higher education and how it is funded risks going begging in a desire to perpetuate the status quo ante of reliance on foreign students.

In a slightly surreal announcement on Sunday, Education Minister Dan Tehan announced the government would be giving to the sector the amount of funding it had already committed to via the Commonwealth Grants Scheme and Higher Education Loan Program funding, based on domestic student numbers.

That will provide a funding base for universities for the year ahead.

Short online courses would also be offered at discount prices, so that, in the words of Tehan, “people, rather than binging on Netflix, [will] be able to binge on studying, to binge on looking at a teaching degree, binge on looking at a nursing degree, an allied health degree.”

While castigating us for wasting our time in lockdown on television, Tehan had little to say about the billions of dollars universities will lose because of the impact of the pandemic on the foreign student market. Indeed, Sunday’s package was “unashamedly focused on domestic students”.

The reliance of universities on international students was accurately described last week by ANU’s Brian Schmidt as the result of an “unwritten pact” between both sides of politics, one that involved not just universities but major sectors of the economy.

Universities reaped big rewards from luring international students, generating our third-biggest source of export dollars behind coal and iron ore, while providing a young temporary work force for employers and economic growth for services and facilities catering to tens of thousands of students in major cities.

The dark side of the international student boom — the trashing of academic standards (primarily in business schools and some science departments), the routine exploitation of student workers by employers, the pressure on infrastructure and house prices for locals in major cities, and the spread of the malignant influence of the Chinese government on campuses, facilitated by a generation of money-obsessed university managers — got overlooked along the way.

Many of the prescient warnings about our addiction to international students focused on an over-reliance on China as a source of students, leaving universities highly vulnerable to an economic or political shock that closed the door on a country providing more than 10% of all enrolments at Australian universities.

Growing wariness of Chinese interference in Australia encouraged the view that higher education had become too dependent on a country with interests significantly at variance with our own. Universities themselves had recognised the risk; ANU began diversifying its student recruitment efforts to focus on India, Singapore and other countries several years ago.

But there was little focus on the possibility of a shock that shut down all sources of foreign students — and which deprived the ones that were already in Australia of any means of making money while they were here.

With international travel restrictions likely to remain in place at least until the end of the year and very possibly into 2021, the $3 billion to $4.6 billion figure in lost international student revenue this year might be a precursor to significantly greater losses next year.

Universities continue to insist that cuts to government funding have driven them to rely on international students, a claim disputed, with strong evidence, by both the Centre for Independent Studies and the Grattan Institute. But what’s not in dispute are the broader, and significant, economic benefits that have flowed — including to greedy wage thieves in business — from the universities’ addiction, which explains why successive governments have been happy to support universities in a quest for ever more foreign cash.

Schmidt’s “unwritten pact” has been a Faustian one, to which many participants readily signed on.

The ANU vice-chancellor’s comments were made in the context of a call for a significant rethink of university funding and, really, of the entire future of the sector, given it would be “transformed” by the crisis, especially if, post-virus, Australia is seen as a less attractive destination for international students.

At the very least, such a rethink needs to focus on the downsides of the boom years — especially the damage done to academic standards and the harm that inflicts on local students, the exploitation of foreign students and the stress on infrastructure caused by inviting hundreds of thousands of temporary residents to already pressured cities.

A more fundamental assessment would examine what kind of university system we want at all, and how to balance the often incompatible objectives of being a degree factory for the middle classes of less developed countries and a high-quality system that gives young Australians the tools to achieve the twin objectives of civic and economic participation.

In the interim, there’s the separate but significant problem that hundreds of thousands of foreign students currently have no means of economic support. Several universities have put together support funds for their international students, as they should.

They’ll also generously be allowed to access any accumulated superannuation, which on part-time retail or hospitality salaries might buy them a few meals at Maccas.

Tehan has indicated officials were asked to “go away and look at what type of mechanisms might be put in place to help support international students through the coronavirus” but any support would only be announced “in coming weeks”, which doesn’t suggest too much alacrity compared to the speed with which other problems are being addressed.

Not all signatories to the unwritten pact, sadly, have the same status.