Universities warn 21,000 jobs could be lost unless government boosts assistance

Trade Minister Dan Tehan sought a meeting with his French counterpart and got a brusque 'Non!' in response.

Trade Minister Dan Tehan sought a meeting with his French counterpart and got a brusque 'Non!' in response. Photo: AAP

Australian universities could lose more than 21,000 jobs over the next six months unless the federal government offers a financial lifeline.

Lobby group Universities Australia said a quarter of the sector’s workforce could lose their jobs, despite the government on Sunday reaffirming its commitment to $18 billion of funding this calendar year.

Education Minister Dan Tehan told reporters the government would maintain the same level of Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) and HELP funding payments despite a projected drop in student enrolments.

He said the government would also offer $100 million of regulatory fee relief, and slash the price of university short courses to help jobless Australians move into in-demand industries such as nursing and allied health.

“We want to enable people, rather than bingeing on Netflix, to binge on studying,” Mr Tehan said of the 20,000 heavily discounted places.

“The cost of these courses has been reduced by over 50 per cent, and in some instances [by] up to 74 per cent.”

But although the changes were a welcome “first step in ensuring the viability of the nation’s universities,” Universities Australia chair Professor Deborah Terry said they weren’t enough to stop a tsunami of job losses.

“We estimate a quarter of all jobs at Australian universities will go within the next six months – that’s more than 21,000 livelihoods,” Professor Terry said.

“Individual universities are already cutting costs across the board through very substantial reductions in operational spending, deferral of vital capital works, and reductions in senior staff salaries.

However, this will be nowhere near enough to cover what we conservatively estimate as a revenue decline of between $3 billion and $4.6 billion.’’

Universities would continue to seek low-interest loans from banks and state governments, while offering “crisis support” to students who have lost part-time jobs, Professor Terry added.

The lobby group had previously asked the government for hardship payments to international students struggling to pay their bills, and a relaxation of the JobKeeper eligibility rules.

The current legislation states that businesses with annual turnover above $1 billion can only claim the JobKeeper wage subsidies if their revenue falls by at least 50 per cent.

But Universities Australia wants the government to lower this threshold to 15 per cent for universities, like it has done for charities.

The government has so far declined both requests.

Its funding guarantee comes after University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence told staff on Wednesday the university expected to lose $470 million as a result of the coronavirus.

Dr Spence said in an email that domestic enrolments had dropped 9.9 per cent and international enrolments had plunged 16.8 per cent.

A University of New South Wales spokesperson, meanwhile, told the Sydney Morning Herald the number of international students for its first trimester had fallen 30 per cent.

Greens education spokesperson Mehreen Faruqi said the falling international enrolments, which for many universities account for more than a third of revenue, followed years of funding cuts.

She said the government’s relief package had failed students and universities – many of which had been forced to “become food banks by a government that refuses to give desperate international students any form of income support”.

“The terrible decision by the government to abandon university staff means they will continue to face uncertainty and instability,” Senator Faruqi said.

“Higher education providers should be eligible for JobKeeper payments and all staff, including all casuals, should be supported through this very difficult time.

“Stop-gaps like regulatory fee relief and online short courses aren’t enough, nor can they justify the government passing the buck on student welfare.”

National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) national president Alison Barnes, meanwhile, said the “smoke and mirrors” relief package failed international students and would do nothing to prevent massive job losses.

“The $18 billion that Dan Tehan is trumpeting is already budgeted for,” Dr Barnes said.

“We’re extremely disappointed that the government will not enable universities to access the JobKeeper subsidy. Without it, tens of thousands of jobs in the sector are still threatened.”

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