Virus crisis-unis aren’t panicking, yet

The NSW Vice Chancellors Committee will look to the state government for support if the corona virus crisis continues

It’s a sign of what is prudence, not panic, at least not yet, as university managements contemplate their cash-flows if the present ban on students arriving from China runs for weeks, or months.

Even before the corona virus was news, Macquarie U had announced it was closing a faculty to save money in the face of a feared drop in student demand.

And universities with transformative reform programmes set to run for years, like UNSW, and big capital building programmes, like Uni Sydney, will be wondering whether income projections set in current budgets are now achievable.

The problem for universities this morning, is that they do not know how big a hit they will take or what they can do about it.

For a start, nobody knows how long the ban on travel from China will stay in place. And while universities know the number of their students who are still in China they do not yet have the details they need, like years to complete and courses, to model how much they will lose.

And then there is the feasibility, in some cases possibility, of reducing the impact by offering courses on-line.

There was talk this week of students being able to study from home in China, and regulator TEQSA, announced it would bend rules to make this possible. But translating classroom-based courses, and assessment of them, into effective on-line education takes money, a great deal of money, plus time and expertise – a great of both. (Dirk Mulder writes on this, above).

The quickest solution to what could become a financial crisis for universities is for the federal government to lift the ban on students arriving from China – but peak university lobbies are not going to get ahead of medical advice in asking for that.

What they will more likely do is call on Canberra to provide extra funding for activities that international student fees support – notably research.

As to what the NSW government can do to help the state’s universities if asked– it could fund trade missions down the track to win Chinese students from Great Britain and Canada, which were not as quick to close their borders.