It was a different time.
February 2020, a time before the coronavirus pandemic had really taken hold in Australia.
The University of Melbourne, Australia’s richest tertiary institution, was gearing up for the start of the academic year — and it was going to be a big one.
In one of its “signature initiatives”, the university decided to throw a party — its inaugural “commencement ceremony”.
Network 10’s The Project host Gorgi Coghlan was brought in to promote and host the event and there were thousands of commemorative “hoodies” for attendees, party favours that cost the university $150,000.
It was one of several unusually lavish welcome events that were attended by thousands of students and cost a total of $1.6 million.
Meanwhile, the union representing university staff was outside protesting about the large numbers of academics and tutors on casual contracts.
At the time it was considered a fringe issue, the “dirty secret” that universities could gloss over with the fast-flowing rivers of gold: international students.
Fast forward to today and across Australia’s university sector the rivers of gold have dried up to a trickle.
Like a conga line of bad news, one by one universities across the country have revealed mass redundancies, as they try to navigate around slashed revenues and an uncertain future.
More than 12,000 staff, at least half of them casuals and contract staff, are now without jobs, according to the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).
But the true figure of job losses is likely much, much higher.
Universities say they are either unable or unwilling to release their own casual and contract job losses, and the union has only been given official figures from two institutions.
ABS payroll data obtained exclusively by the ABC showed the tertiary education sector recorded a 2.4 per cent drop in employment between March 14 — the day Australia recorded its 100th COVID-19 case — and August 22.
The number is well below the industry-wide average of 4.2 per cent.
Many job losses have been made since the end of August, but Education Minister Dan Tehan said it showed government support, like guaranteeing domestic student revenue, was working.
“That to me points to the fact that our $18 billion commitment guarantee on Easter Sunday this year has helped put some ballast into the sector,” he said.
Yet, some say things may be about to get worse.
The ‘hunger games’ scenario
In Canberra, the Federal Government is this week conducting backroom deals aimed at passing legislation to completely flip the cost of many degrees, in what critics say is a blatant attempt to funnel students away from the arts and into “job ready” areas it believes will be in high demand.
In what is understood to be the first detailed analysis of the legislation, Mark Warburton from University of Melbourne’s Centre of Higher Education predicted six of the sandstone “big 8” universities would incur a combined revenue loss of nearly $60 million a year, compared to a continuation of current policy.
“Members of Parliament cannot make an informed decision on these changes and should not support them,” Mr Warburton said, after releasing the analysis on Tuesday.
The legislation — which will live or die on the vote of undecided senator Sterling Griff from Centre Alliance — is designed to increase student places and guarantees indexation, but it also reduces the Government’s share of funding.
In the past, the combination of Government and student funding provided more money than it cost universities to teach courses, meaning universities could redeploy the savings to research.
Now universities will only receive the true cost of the course.
This comes on top of the revenue drop from international students — which was used for the same purpose — that helped propel Australia to a record 10 spots in the “100 best global schools” list.
Of the universities facing this new fiscal reality, experts say a “hunger games” scenario where larger, more reputable universities steal local students is very real, and will push smaller institutions to the brink.
There is already evidence of this, with the University of Sydney revealing its student enrolment growth was stronger than expected so far this year and the University of Melbourne last week revising its predicted revenue loss down from $309 million to $177 million.
Yet, there is pain everywhere — and many unknowns.
“I know one thing for sure, universities are our fourth largest export earner,” Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek said.
“If this decimation was occurring in coal, or gas or iron ore, the Government would be there to help.”
Mr Warburton said the Government was seeking “an extraordinary level of ministerial discretion to shape the future of Australia’s higher education sector at the same time as it is introducing radical changes to the funding of student places”.
“Members of Parliament and the public have been provided with inadequate information on which to assess the proposed changes and there is little empirical evidence to support the proposals,” he said.
A ‘horse with two heads’
Australia’s long-held public-private funding model — embraced by the ALP and the Coalition — has been described as “like a horse with two heads both galloping in different directions”.
The need for private revenue saw universities aggressively pursue international students.
Insiders say to do that and climb up the rankings universities invested heavily in “rockstar” researchers while casualising the teaching workforce.
And for a decade, it worked.
It became Australia’s fourth-biggest export industry — until COVID-19 came along.
And now there is a dilemma.
The Government quietened public opposition for its reforms from the “big 8 universities” by promising a separate research funding announcement in next week’s Federal Budget.
But it is understood the elite universities involved in negotiations believe it will not be enough to sustain their globally recognised research, putting its pull for international students at risk in a post-COVID-19 world.
One of the few vice-chancellors to speak publicly, Sydney University’s vice-chancellor Michael Spence, said if the proposed legislation was a thesis, he would advise “revision and resubmission”.
Yet, smaller institutions like the University of Tasmania and Western Sydney University, as well as the regional university lobby, are vocal supporters of the Government’s job-ready graduates plan.
Locked-in funding with indexation and certainty, as well as extra student numbers which favour regional and outer suburban, proved enticing.
That carrot also convinced Universities Australia to give its support.
That has led to a divided sector, with one insider likening the Government’s politics to the imperial strategy of “divide and rule”.
International students still the key
With the Government making it clear it will not fill the estimated $4.6 billion revenue gap from international students, a return to the halcyon days remains a long way off.
As does the return of international students, for the time being.
A proposed return through so-called “safe corridors” was delayed after Victoria’s second wave, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he would only allow a return of international students with the reopening of state borders.
While there is tension with China, the ABC’s recently departed China correspondent Bill Birtles said demand in Beijing to come to Australia to study remained strong.
Unlike competitors in the UK and the US that have been ravaged by coronavirus, Australia is a much safer choice for nervous parents in the coronavirus age.
However, some universities are banking borders will not be opened for a number of years, in turn locking in job cuts. Others are taking a more cautious wait-and-see approach hoping for a reprieve.
Back at the University of Melbourne, which is under Victoria’s strict lockdown, campus life is non-existent — a far cry from the party atmosphere in February.
Yet the ghosts of the past are still present.
The ABC has been leaked its budget for 2020.
It gives a rare insight into just how flush top universities were in the pre-COVID-19 world.
The chancellery alone had budgeted $43 million on ‘”expert services” — that included consultants, but the university said it was also for student wellbeing.
It had also budgeted a further $6 million for travel, conference and entertainment.
There was even a new “senior management reward scheme” proposed — code for hefty bonuses.
The university declined to say whether or not the reward scheme was still in place.
Melbourne University’s chief operating officer, Allan Tait, said other savings to the leaked budget had been achieved.
“Reduced expenditure on consumable goods and services and expert services is expected to deliver savings of up to 15 per cent. About 70 per cent of the travel budget remains unspent,” he said.
Sector wide, the largesse was on show when vice-chancellors regularly went to Canberra to lobby politicians.
Key figures on both sides of politics noted the VCs arrived in chauffeured cars with the top earners on salaries two or even three times that of Mr Morrison.
With all the uncertainty, one thing is for sure — students at the University of Melbourne should keep the commemorative hoodie as a collectors item.
It will be a long time before they are on offer again.
Originally posted 2020-10-02 11:35:52.