The current pandemic is posing significant financial challenges for public sector universities, but the post-pandemic era is likely to pose an even more significant challenge for Australia. Prior to COVID-19, Australia’s higher education system was the third-largest contributor to Australia’s export success in dollar terms, injecting an estimated $37.6 billion into our economy. For many of us, life may soon begin to return to normal, but that does not mean international students will return to our shores. We have an enormous gap to fill, but we need solutions to remedy the vulnerabilities of the past as well as ideas to ensure our prosperity as Australians for the next several generations.
Hence, the AAUP is calling on the Senate Standing Committees on Education and Employment for an enquiry into the sustainability of the Australian higher education system as the current crisis evolves.
Already, reports of abolishing hundreds of professional and support staff positions are emerging. The mass termination of up to 100,000 casual, part-time, administrative and executive positions would irrevocably damage Australia’s capacity to teach, research and contribute to the community. The long-term halts imposed on research and other funding affect Australia’s ability to provide robust data-driven responses to the medical, ecological, economic and social problems we are facing and will continue to face in the next months and years.
Instead of the VCs knee-jerk reaction to slash costs at any cost, we, as the academic teachers of tomorrow’s problem-solvers, believe our society needs its public universities to throw out the models of the past. The AAUP has a charter, and an essential pillar reads, “universities are communities of scholars and researchers whose aim is to seek and create knowledge by pursuing free and open enquiry, scholarship, research and learning, and to assist and encourage students to do the same.”
The truth is that this acute crisis in the Australian public university system has been decades in the making – COVID-19 just tipped it over the edge. Years of reforms to the Australian higher education sector have shifted focus from equipping our young adults with a profession, pursuing knowledge and advancing society to tertiary education as a product to be traded on the open market. Rather than leading academia, university leaders have increasingly had to become CEOs, in many cases without the necessary guidance to be wisely entrepreneurial or to make informed investment decisions. We may have been selling the services of our education sector for much-needed foreign revenue, but what we have been really exporting is much-needed skills as the international students we educated graduate and return home. The long-term value proposition of this exchange is questionable. However, while one might argue the short-sightedness of this business model, more importantly, the coronavirus has shown that it leaves us vulnerable in an increasingly nationalistic world.
Countries were already turning inward before the pandemic struck and, for many, this health crisis has cemented those sentiments. If we do not change what we are doing, we will neither benefit from foreign income nor will we be making a consistent and enduring investment into the skills we need at home for Australia’s long-term prosperity.
Therefore, we ask for a Senate enquiry to explore university governance arrangements, funding models, risk-taking, local and international student experiences, how research is assessed, education infrastructure and employment conditions. Further, a specific focus must be the commercial models that the Australian public universities have pursued over the last decades and the significant risks they have imposed on the sector concerning the quality of education and research, financial sustainability and protection of our human capital. The outcomes should expose the deficiencies and weaknesses in the current sector models with recommendations on how to overcome these frailties in future.
This pandemic and the coming post-pandemic era pose significant challenges for higher education in Australia but, unlike other industries that are trying to return to normality, our universities do not need to get back on track. We need to carve out a whole new track – starting now.
The AAUP is a broad-based, democratic forum promoting the best Australian HE practice. It calls on the HE community to make the case for an inquiry to their VCs and local members/senators