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As unis face funding crisis, Southern Cross at 'critical juncture'

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Australia’s universities face losing up to $16 billion over the next four years due to the ongoing impact of COVID-19 pandemic, with the economic crisis at one Queensland university putting it at a “critical juncture” for its future.

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Universities Australia estimates losses of between $3.1bn and $4.8bn nationwide this year alone. The peak body had previously estimated losses of up to $4.6bn in 2020.
Crashing revenue from a drop in international students as borders remain closed under international coronavirus lock downs is largely to blame for the grim outlook.
Southern Cross University, with campuses on the Gold Coast, Coffs Harbour and Lismore, is one of the hardest hit, with revelations the institution was facing an “economic crisis” due to a financial shortfall of up to $58 million over the next two years.

SCU Vice Chancellor Professor Adam Shoemaker confirmed the scale of the university’s COVID-19 induced financial battle would prompt staff wage freezes, cuts to working hours and an overhaul of the university’s academic model.

Shoemaker said the financial hit to the university would be greater in 2021 than in 2020.

“I cannot sugar-coat this. We are experiencing an economic crisis which is still building in intensity,” he said.

“Southern Cross University stands at a critical juncture. The decisions and actions that we take together over the coming weeks and months will either serve to secure our future; or see us lose the right to determine it.”

Griffith University estimated its losses this year would be in excess of $100 million, with 2021 likely to be worse.

A Griffith University spokesperson said the university was navigating a challenging and unprecedented time and would take the rest of 2020 to develop a considered long-term plan.

“Griffith will not be rushing into any decisions on long-term cost savings measures.

“Some savings have already been achieved through delayed capital expenditure, a recruitment freeze and the executive group agreeing to a 20 per cent reduction in their salaries,” the spokesperson said.

The Universities Australia release of the devastating financial estimates has intensified lobbying for government assistance for the industry and more direct funding for research.

In contrast to government plans for further support for the construction, arts and childcare sectors, universities have been told by the government to fix their business models.

International education is Australia’s fourth largest export, adding $39 billion to the nation’s bottom line each year. Universities perform around 90 per cent of the fundamental research undertaken in Australia and 43 per cent of applied research.

Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said the four-year modelling underlined the sustained effect of COVID-19 on university finances and the tertiary sector’s ability to fund vital research.

“We can’t pretend that won’t have a big impact,” Jackson said.

“Not only does that revenue support the staff and facilities to educate the next generation of skilled workers, it also pays for much of the research and innovation that keeps Australia internationally competitive.”

Jackson said independent estimates showed that between $3.3 billion and $3.5 billion annually of the research and development functions of universities could be at risk.

“If there’s less research on campus we will be less equipped to deal with crises like COVID-19 and bushfires in future,” Jackson said.

“You can’t have an economic recovery without investing in research and development.”

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for journalism and ideas

 

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