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Australia’s Education Sector– February 2021

Australia's tertiary education sector is in for another rocky year as revenue remains subdued in light of ongoing travel restrictions. While Zoom meetings and remote learning quickly filled the gap left by no on-campus attendance at the start of 2020, the impact of COVID-19 still dealt a lasting blow on Australia's third largest pre-pandemic export. More than 17,000 jobs have been lost at Australia's universities since the onset of the pandemic, a 13% reduction in the size of the workforce. Among the most exposed were workers on casual and contract jobs, with job losses estimated to be around 6000. This occurred on top of a $1.8 bn reduction in sector-wide revenue, a number that is expected to increase to a further $2 bn in 2021 as international travel remains uncertain.

As Australia's revenue-starved universities eagerly await the messianic return of international students, the government has thrown a lifeline in $1 bn worth of research grants for the university-sector, a byproduct of our public-private funding model. In a more controversial decision, an overhaul of fees in order to drive growth in jobs with the highest growth potential has aimed to increase the employability of graduates, much to the chagrin of humanities students who face a doubling of their annual tuition. Subjects in nursing, agriculture, maths and science among others will see a reduction in costs, whereas prospective law, commerce and economics students are obliged to reconsider whether they will be necessary constituents of Australia's future workforce. Understandably, this decision has been met with considerable backlash, with National Tertiary Education Union President Alison Barnes stating that "gouging students" won't fix a "funding crisis", demanding that more substantial funding packages be given to universities as opposed to targeting "certain cohorts of students for more money".


Nonetheless, vaccine rollouts mark an optimistic sign for universities and the possibility of a return to normality within the year. Among proposals to speed up international student returns include digital vaccine certificates or 'vaccination passports', which aim to expedite student entries back into the country and risk losing enrolments to countries whose borders have opened sooner. If successful, this could alleviate revenue stresses faced by universities, as 164,000 estimated students continue to be barred from entering Australia due to ongoing border closures.



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