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Unis concerned about a different class structure and the loss of expertise

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Online learning and fee changes could create disparities in the student body at Queensland universities and undermine high-end research.

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Social distancing requirements have forced many classes online, while travel restrictions have also left many fee-paying international students stranded.

At the same time, rising unemployment has led to increased domestic demand for courses, but in a manner that departs from long-term trends.

At a Queensland Futures Institute Policy Leaders Breakfast today, key stakeholders from across the education sector spoke of the challenges and opportunities arising from the pandemic.

University of Southern Queensland Vice-Chancellor Professor Geraldine Mackenzie said the institution had seen demand change, as potential students re-evaluated what they wanted out of tertiary education. Mackenzie noted the up-skilling courses USQ decided to offer for free this year had “thousands and thousands of applications” and were well-subscribed.

Like other universities, USQ also had to provide students – and many staff – with laptops and connectivity in order to shift their courses online. Mackenzie said they were conscious of the potential barriers to education.

QUT Provost Professor Nic Smith said any “digital divide” would be exacerbated by Federal Government funding changes that would shift the fee burden onto students and potentially create new layers of disadvantage.

“The trends, politically, I think are not helpful for that,” Smith said, questioning whether the government even had time to consider the ramifications.

University of Queensland Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Terry said the sector had to adapt not only to changing patterns of demand, but a different financial and policy environment.

“We are seeing levels of counter-cyclical demand that we’ve never seen,” Terry said.

While 20 per cent of school-leavers might take a gap year, and perhaps travel overseas, they were instead looking to make themselves more employable so “there’s no option for a gap year next year”.

Terry said Australia’s research capability was significant, globally, but also highly dependent on funding from universities, who were already reliant on income from international students.

“This situation has exposed that, laid it bare,” she said.

Terry said universities were having to find more sustainable funding models, particularly due to the downturn in international education. She said even pilot programs to bring students to Australia under special protocols would not happen any time soon.

“Pilots, to the extent that they will happen, will happen either over the summer period and into first semester, which means in all likelihood that, if there is opening of borders .. that it won’t be until semester two next year.

“Of course, that has implications for the university sector in terms of budget planning for next year.”

The speakers agreed on the need for universities to enhance the value proposition for students.

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