The Group of Eight universities has cautiously welcomed a plan that could see hundreds of millions of dollars of research funding brought forward as a stop gap to prevent massive job losses.
On Wednesday, The Australian reported that a group of vice-chancellors and the education minister, Dan Tehan, are considering the plan to bring funding from 2024-25 forward to 2021-22 to support research during the Covid-19 crisis without increasing total spending.
Labor, which is locked in a battle with the Coalition over the job-ready graduate package, pilloried the idea as another policy with no new money for universities.
Universities are facing a $16bn funding blackhole by 2023 due to Covid-19 and the loss of international student revenue, which is expected to wipe out 21,000 jobs in the sector.
The job-ready graduate package provides just $50m more for research at regional universities, but effectively ends the system of teaching cross-subsidising research, putting further pressure on universities.
Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said while universities would prefer new money to support research, it is “sensible to support” bringing forward funding from future years “as an emergency measure”.
“It’s important that the gap is filled,” she told Guardian Australia. “It would make some sense to include such a measure in the October budget.”
Bringing forward up to $700m from the $2.1bn expected to be spent on research in 2024-25 would delay the funding cliff for universities, which would hope to grow international student revenue once travel resumes to make up the shortfall.
The government hopes to pass its job-ready graduate package with crossbench support shortly after the October budget.
The bill proposes to reduce the overall government contribution to degrees from 58% to 52% and increase fees for some courses, including humanities, to pay for fee cuts in sciences and 39,000 extra university places by 2023.
Labor’s shadow education minister, Tanya Plibersek, said the government is engaged in “university funding cuts and massive student fee hikes”, which – combined with the new proposal for “not a dollar extra for research” – amounted to “a ripoff”.
“Scott Morrison won’t be happy until he’s locked every Aussie high school kid out of uni and driven every one of our brilliant researchers overseas,” she said.
On Thursday, the Regional University Network will release research by Nous and the Centre of Policy Studies showing that in 2018, regional universities contributed $2.4bn to GDP in regional Australia and created 11,300 jobs, a 41% increase since 2015.
The chair of RUN, Helen Bartlett, said doubling RUN research income from its 2018 level to $253m would generate an additional $94m in GDP across regional campus areas and an additional 600 jobs.
But while such an injection of funding is considered unlikely, universities are looking to semester one of 2021 as a chance to recapture lost international student revenue.
Plans to bring international students back to Australia for semester two of 2020 stalled due to state border closures and the second wave of infections in Victoria.
On Wednesday, the New South Wales minister for jobs, investment and tourism, Stuart Ayres, told the Australian Technology Network’s international education summit that NSW’s experience with hotel quarantine gave the government confidence it could reopen the international student market “sooner rather than later”.
Ayres said the state had hosted 60,000 people in 14-day hotel quarantine already, and for international students with a long stay in Australia the quarantine was “quite manageable”.
Ayres foreshadowed “new quarantine arrangements to allow international students … back to study perhaps sooner than what people would have imagined”.
“I foreshadow that we’ll be able to open borders to international students through a quarantine regime much earlier than … to the visitor economy, or tourists.”
Ayres said there was “no reason” the state could start to bring international students back for “the start of 2021”.