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(Image: Unsplash/Philippe Bout)

The past 12 months have been brutal for higher education. Left to wither and die by a government which deliberately excluded public universities from JobKeeper, the sector lost 17,200 jobs and could lose up to $19 billion in revenue over the next three years. And international students — its financial backbone for years — are unlikely to return in numbers any time soon.

Tuesday’s federal budget is a key opportunity for the government to throw higher education a much-needed lifeline. So what, ideally, should it do?

What we know

In the flurry of strategic pre-budget drops, there has been only one real boost for higher education: a $53 million package for private colleges and vocational training centres. Although institutions got JobKeeper, they rely even more on international students

But Australian National University higher education expert Andrew Norton says the package is “probably not going to make a big difference” to those institutions, which have struggled since JobKeeper wound up and lack a strong pipeline of domestic student demand to turn to.

Meanwhile there’ve been no drops about universities.

More for R&D

One of the few goodies given to the sector in the last budget was a $1 billion research package for universities. That was very welcome but the National Tertiary Education Union thinks it isn’t enough.

National president Alison Barnes called the package a “sugar hit” and analysis from the University of Melbourne pointed to a $7.2 billion research and development funding shortfall.

Universities Australia also wants additional stabilisation funding on top of last year’s package, and an increase in long-term investment.

Support for international students

As long as international students are locked out, the sector will struggle. Many were promised a return to Australia last year, but Health Minister Greg Hunt has made announcements recently about keeping borders closed even after Australians are vaccinated. Many students stranded overseas are reconsidering returning to Australia.

So far state-based programs to fly international students home have stalled. The sector wants those programs to be adequately funded, and beefed up. They also want more visa flexibility for international students stuck overseas.

“It is time for a constructive national plan for the safe return of international students, bringing together the efforts of universities, state and territory governments with the Commonwealth,” Universities Australia boss Catriona Jackson said.

Ultimately the best way to bring those students back would be to loosen border restrictions, which remains politically unpopular.

Funding, funding, funding

Everything comes back to universities needing more funding. Barnes says in the decade before the pandemic, the sector received $10 billion less in government contributions than was projected back in 2010. Norton says that at the last budget, funding for the Commonwealth Grants Scheme — through which the government subsidises tuition for domestic students — was stagnant over the forward estimates.

Meanwhile, the effect of the government’s new funding arrangements, where students are essentially charged more for arts degrees, is that the Commonwealth pays a lower proportion of university course costs. It’s essentially a divestment in the higher education sector by stealth.

The National Tertiary Education Union wants an investment in the sector worth 1% of GDP. Barnes says this would deal with many of the deeper structural problems affecting universities, including the rise of insecure work, which has eroded both employment and teaching standards.

Loans for short courses

Universities Australia wants a new HECS-style scheme for short courses, which would allow students to more easily get new skills and “micro-credentials” in areas such as digital health and bushfire preparedness.

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