All of us want an end to serious health worries, economic distress and dislocation. And those of us who are parents hope it will provide an education for our children and the prospect of a good job afterwards.
Australia’s universities have a crucial role to play in delivering a better future.
Universities are ideas factories; ideas that eventually become new industries, new jobs and new prosperity. Universities are important places where Australians, young and older, go to gain new skills, new insights and new job prospects.
Yet we’re in danger of blocking the ideas and innovation universities create, just when we need them more than ever.
New estimates suggest the future facing our universities, and the world-beating education and research they do, is bleaker than we first thought.
Updated modelling, based on the latest international student enrolment projections, tells us the sector now could lose between $3.1bn and $4.8bn in revenue. The previous estimate ranged between $3bn and $4.6bn.
And that is just for this year.
The outlook for the medium term is even more concerning: disruptions this year will have a domino effect for years to come.
For the first time, we now estimate revenue losses could total $16bn by 2023. That is based on a drop in international student revenue of 20 per cent this year, 40 per cent next year, 30 per cent the year after that, and 20 per cent in 2023.
The problem is that many international students will not be able to enrol and begin studies because of the travel bans.
That is no one’s fault, but it does cause continuing revenue problems for universities.
Those students who have not started this year will not continue to second year in 2021 and so on. That $16bn estimate is based on conservative assumptions including that the government may lift travel restrictions, allowing some international students to return.
So, in a sense, it is a best case.
These revenue losses pose stark consequences not only for universities but also for Australia’s ability to recover from this pandemic.
Eventually we will all suffer, one way or another.
While our universities are at the leading edge of so many areas of research, right now it is the many projects to help understand and fight COVID-19 that are at the forefront of everybody’s mind.
University researchers are contributing expert knowledge to shape and inform the pandemic response right up to those decisions being made at national cabinet.
Australians can be rightly proud of our role in the huge global effort to find a vaccine.
The first man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong, said: “Research is creating new knowledge.”
That knowledge is the raw material that makes new ideas, new technologies and entire new industries that will generate economic success and create the new jobs vital to Australia’s future national recovery.
Without extra government help, we know for sure that there will be many fewer of these skilled researchers in work in one, two or even three years from now.
Imagine the potential that will be lost. Imagine the jobs and industries that will not be created.
We know that investment in research pays off. Recent analysis by Deloitte Access Economics tells us that for every $1 invested in higher education $5 comes back into gross domestic product.
University collaborations with business generated $12.8bn and supported 38,500 full-time jobs across the country in 2018-19.
That ongoing contribution to the economy has been thrown into uncertainty by COVID-19 at the time we will need it most.
Independent estimates show that between $3.3bn and $3.5bn of university R&D capability is at risk this year alone. And this is not a single-year problem.
Another $3.5bn is expected to be at risk next year, and more still beyond that.
COVID-19 has fundamentally changed our collective hopes and dreams for the future. Our assumptions about our personal health, safety and wellbeing have been seriously challenged. Jobs thought to have been secure have disappeared. Financial uncertainty has become an unhappy fact of life for many households across the nation.
A key pathway to restoring jobs and growth in the economy, to finding treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, to reimagining a way of life after the pandemic, is through the R&D work that happens inside universities.
That vital research is performed by an army of workers who live next door and across the road. They may be your family, friends and neighbours.
Their work will help guide us to a better future.
Universities are doing everything they can to address the financial impacts from COVID-19. But no sector can lose $16bn in four years without serious consequences.
Which is why we again urge government to reinvest in research and reinvest in the knowledge that drives progress and jobs.
Catriona Jackson is chief executive of Universities Australia.
As published in The Australian on 3 June 2020