Having no idea what is happening next is deeply unsettling. We are habitual creatures, we like structure: football in winter, cricket in summer, pizza on Friday, catching up with family on Sunday. It’s this collection of activities that gives daily life its shape and rhythm.
But what we have also learned is that human beings have an extraordinary ability to manage corrosive stress, if they understand and agree with the higher purpose.
Australia’s universities, like the communities we serve, have not been spared the unpredictability, setbacks and insecurity of the pandemic. Like the rest of the nation, we have risen to the challenge. Universities have transitioned courses online, worked closely with students – here and the many stuck abroad – to manage a very different way of working and learning.
At the same time, our researchers, academics, staff and students are working to tip the scales back into balance. Over the past four decades, Australia has built a global reputation as a research leader, generating a stream of new discoveries, inventions and ideas. That pedigree of innovative research and applied knowledge has helped Australia successfully ride the rollercoaster of COVID-19. And it is that we must maintain.
In April last year, shortly after Australia’s international borders closed, Universities Australia estimated the impact of COVID-19 to university budgets at upwards of $3.1 billion in 2020.
Universities immediately reduced their costs by cutting discretionary expenditure. Spending on capital works projects was suspended, and difficult decisions were made about the future size and shape of institutions and courses.
Now – almost a year in – we can look at how close our estimates were to the reality. I wish we had been wrong, but it seems not.
Based on new analysis of data from UA’s members, the nation’s 39 comprehensive universities, universities lost around $1.8 billion in operating revenue in 2020 compared to 2019. That is a loss of over $3 billion compared to business-as-usual projections.
We have always said that the revenue hit was not a one-year problem for universities but a two, three, four year problem. That too has proved correct.
Universities had budgeted for a return of at least some international students this year – now an increasingly unlikely prospect. That means we estimate that universities will lose a further $2 billion in 2021 (compared with actual operating revenue in 2019).
This represents a 4.9 per cent reduction in operating revenue in 2020 and a 5.5 per cent reduction in 2021.
The hardest decision for university leaders to make has been to reduce staff numbers. Now we can look back, we estimate that least 17,300 jobs were lost on campuses in 2020. It is impossible to see that more jobs will not be in serious jeopardy this year. The loss of every single staff member is a terrible thing for the individual and the university community, but also a blow for Australia’s knowledge reservoir.
All Australian universities conduct research – it is a defining feature of our world class university system. So, with the pandemic still raging around the world, these losses could not come at a worse time.
Universities have been undertaking a growing share of the nation’s research for many years now. According to the Department of Industry, in 2019-20 the Australian Government investment in R&D was 0.48 per cent of GDP – the lowest in four decades.
Ultimately it is up to the Government to determine the level of university research it believes is right for Australia. Universities welcomed the injection of $1 billion for research announced in October. It was a hearty endorsement of the centrality of research to the nation’s health and will make a huge difference in terms of jobs saved and life-saving research continuing.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the National Press Club on Monday this week that it is vital to cement the post-COVID economic recovery and ‘create jobs and more jobs’.
Our challenge is to continue to find ways of ensuring our world-leading researchers have the resources they need to contribute to delivering that economic recovery and creating those jobs of the future.
As the virus continues to wreak havoc around the globe, we must ensure we stay ahead of it, in all ways. To keep this incredible effort up we must maintain the standing army of researchers we have built.
Research is not a ‘nice to have’. It’s fundamental to Australia’s economic and social success.
We know money is short, especially just after a recession. But investing in research today guarantees all Australians will reap the dividend tomorrow.
It is the job of universities to challenge conventional wisdom about the way the world works. They exist to push the boundaries of what we know about our world. And to make sense of uncertainty.
Catriona Jackson is Chief Executive of Universities Australia.
As published in The Australian on 3 February 2021.