by GARRY CARNEGIE and JAMES GUTHRIE
The Queensland public universities comprising University of Queensland, CQU, Griffith, James Cook, QUT, USC and USQ have a 31 December 2019 year-end. The 2019 annual reports for all are now available, having been tabled in state parliament.
Of these universities, three made specific reference to COVID-19 risks in their latest annual report – University of Queensland (23 per cent of total students are international), Griffith (18 per cent) and QUT (17 per cent) – all Brisbane-based universities.* Disclosures were made in notes to the financial statements entitled “Events occurring after balance date” (or similar) and, in the cases of Griffith and QUT, in other places in their annual reports. The other four institutions did not make any disclosures of the virus or its potential impacts on their operations and finances.
The three disclosing universities, however, provided considerably different disclosures on the possible impacts of COVID-19. The University of Queensland was the most informative of the seven public institutions stating that “while the impact on revenues is unknown at this time, the university’s 2020 revenue may be negatively impacted by an estimated $100-$200 million”. However, “this estimate assumes the travel ban is lifted before Semester two”.
While this financial estimate of the virus effects on future revenue is broad in range, it provides more guidance compared to other disclosing two universities.
Griffith U indicated that on the date of signing the 2019 financial statements “the recent COVID-19 outbreak … will impact income in 2020” but “given the evolving circumstances the total impact cannot be reliably estimated”. It was further noted “however, management consider the university to have sufficient reserves to mitigate the potential impact”. There seemed to be little material risk in making this statement on the coverage of potential losses by reserves, which totalled $920 million on 31 December 2019 while retained earnings amounted to a further 1.29 billion on that date.
QUT indicated that it is “monitoring the situation, applying risk management strategies, and assessing potential flow-on effects upon revenue derived from international student enrolments”, and added the effects of COVID-19 “are not able to be reliably estimated at this point in time”. It also stated in the “2019 Summary of Financial Performance” that the impact of the virus on revenue from international students and other factors “remain challenges for 2020 and beyond … [while] the university remains well-positioned to achieve its plans, objectives and longer-term aspirations”.
Of the other four Queensland universities, three – CQU (25 per cent), James Cook (32 per cent, with a campus in Singapore) and USC (21 per cent) – in their statements on events occurring after balance date made no mention of COVID-19 or the potential effects of the virus on future revenue and overall financial performance. These universities were indicating, in fact, that the virus, arising after 31 December 2019, was not regarded as an event “of a material nature” (James Cook U). CQU stated, for instance, “there are no material matters which have arisen subsequent to year end that significantly impact upon the operations of the university”.
USQ (22%), however, did not provide any disclosures in its 2019 financial statements relating to events arising after balance date. Therefore, COVID-19 was not acknowledged nor were there any other events occurring of this kind.
In summary, the COVID-19 risks to revenue from overseas students will have an impact on the 2020 financial performance, position, and cash flows of these universities, which are likely to be material given such reported proportions of international students of the total student populations.
Across the Queensland public university sector, there is diversity of disclosure on COVID-19 risks in the 2019 annual reports, making it difficult to assess and interpret the financial risks of the loss of revenue from international students at Queensland universities.
* The proportion of international students to total students was discernible in the 2019 annual reports of six universities, and for the University of Queensland, was instead located here. https://www.universityrankings.com.au/international-student-numbers.html
Emeritus Professor Garry Carnegie, RMIT University and Distinguished Professor James Guthrie, Macquarie University