Contrary to expectations, the Australian universities sector reached a significant milestone in 2021, listing total assets of $102bn dollars in their annual reports. While universities have experienced financial challenges in the period 2019 to 2021, principally because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have nevertheless collectively increased total assets by $19.7 billion (24 per cent) and net assets by $10.6 billion (18 per cent) from 2018 to 2021, well above CPI increases.

Significant strengthening of balance sheets for many universities has occurred. Any decreases in international student fee incomes have been more than compensated for by increases in other revenue streams.

Five of 37 were financially dominant. Melbourne, Sydney, Queensland, Monash and New South Wales, contributed $37.3 billion (36.5 per cent) of the sector’s total assets in 2021 and $24.6 billion (35.4 per cent) of the $69.4bn in net assets. The balance sheets changes through the pandemic years for these five universities (designated U5 universities), have been recently profiled in detail.

The 2021 assets and liabilities values and the percentage changes from 2018 to 2021 for the U5 universities and the sector are shown in the table (below).

Melbourne and Sydney have the highest levels of total and net assets in 2021, with Queensland, Monash and UNSW being clustered, especially for net assets. Monash at 45 per cent and Melbourne at 38 per cent had the highest percentage increases in total assets over four years, while in terms of net assets these two universities along with Sydney have strengthened their balance sheets over the pandemic years in the range 31 per cent to 35 per cent, more than Queensland and UNSW combined.

The Sydney outcome resulted from a relatively low percentage increase in total liabilities in comparison to total asset growth, while Queensland 108 per cent and Monash 64 per cent had the highest liabilities increases, principally because of increased borrowings and leasing costs. The financial strengthening of the Queensland balance sheet, in terms of net assets or equity at 16 per cent, was proportionally less than the U37 sector average of 18 per cent. UNSW has performed below the sector average, in terms of both total (14 per cent) and net asset (13 per cent) growth, being the lowest of the U5 universities. Nevertheless, in absolute terms they are in financially strong positions.

Overall, the U5 universities have all proven their resilience since 2019 to effectively manage the financial challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented. U5 universities are central to the financial health of the sector, because for 2021 they accounted for 36.5 per cent of total sector assets, 48.7 per cent of research block grant funding and 32.2 per cent of the total full-time equivalent (FTE) staff (at 31 March 2021). They enrolled 23.2 per cent of the effective full time student load (EFTSL) in 2020, including 30.3 per cent of overseas students.

Many universities expect to see further recovery in overseas student fee incomes in 2022 and beyond, but financial outcomes from inflation, possible decreased property and plant values, equity investments, borrowing costs, infrastructure and new resource developments are uncertain. The University of Melbourne has recently foreshadowed that it is predicting a cash flow deficit from continuing operations in 2022 with further losses in 2023 and 2024. This is a surprising development given it has been able to report an operating surplus in the pandemic years 2019, 2020 and 2021, while sustaining losses in student fees and charges and investment income in 2020.

Given the uncertain global environment for higher education, major challenges confront the sector to remain internationally competitive, especially in research and student recruitment. The recent track records provide confidence that Australia has a strong and resilient higher education sector to meet global challenges.

Melbourne Sydney Queensland Monash UNSW  

U5 Unis


37 Unis

Values in billions of Dollars for 2021
Total Assets $10.59 $9.30 $5.01 $6.24 $6.15 $37.30      $102.2
Total Liabilities $2.85 $3.15 $1.23 $2.66 $2.79 $12.68       $32.76
Net Assets $7.74 $6.15 $3.79 $3.58 $3.35 $24.61       $69.45
Percent Increase 2018 to 2021
Total Assets 38% 23% 30% 45% 14%        30%           24%
Total Liabilities 46% 12% 108% 64% 14% 34%           39%
Net Assets 35% 31% 16% 33% 13% 27% 18%


Professor Emeritus Frank Larkins, Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, and School and Chemistry, University of Melbourne


to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education