Katie Cox has been working 12-hour days since universities shifted to online teaching.
- Experts fear the international student market may never recover from the impact of coronavirus
- Tertiary educators have become dependent on international students, who account for a quarter of their revenue
- Job and income losses could lead to academics and industry leaving the country
The extra work has involved not only getting course material online but also providing emotional support to students — many of whom lost jobs during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Ms Cox, a literature expert based in Canberra, teaches at two universities and has almost finished her PHD.
It has taken her a decade to reach this point, but the pandemic means she may be jobless next semester. Her aspirations for an academic career are in limbo.
“I don’t even know if I’m going to have a career after this semester,” Ms Cox said.
COVID-19 has hit harder than the GFC, union says
The closure of Australia’s borders and subsequent loss of international students has hit university finances hard.
While each university has a different exposure to the downturn, it is estimated that, Australia-wide, revenue will drop by $3 billion this year.
That could cause the loss of up to 21,000 jobs, with 7,000 estimated to be research-related academic positions.
The head of Universities Australia, Catriona Jackson, said the revenue hit would be felt for years.
“If you lose international students for this year, then you don’t have a second year … third year, the year after,” she said.
National Tertiary Education Union division secretary Cathy Day said the impact had been worse than the global financial crisis.
The union is negotiating a salary cut of 5 to 15 per cent for full-time ongoing staff in the hope it will save up 12,000 jobs.
“If you look at the global or the Asian financial crisis a few years ago, it took five years for the numbers of students to come back to Australia. I think we’re in the same boat.
“Even if, magically, coronavirus disappeared from Australia and we opened for business tomorrow, the countries that the majority of our international students come from are very heavily impacted.”
Decades of cuts led to dependence on international dollars
International education is one of Australia’s largest export industries — worth more than $35 billion per year to the economy.
In 2018, tertiary educators raked in $8.84 billion in fees from overseas students — 26 per cent of their total revenue.
But the union said universities had only turned to international students for income after successive federal governments, since the 1980s, cut their funding.
“For that reason, they are now more reliant on international students than they ever were in the past, so the loss of those students is a massive income drain on the universities,” Dr Day said.
She said federal funding for the tertiary sector needed to be increased, in both the short term — for example, by allowing universities to access JobKeeper payments — and the long-term.
Calls for investment into research to boost COVID-19 recovery
Universities Australia said government investment in research and teaching would be repaid by helping the economy rebound quickly after the crisis passed.
“We know that education, good education for kids who may not have a job, good research positions, good knowledge, new ideas is exactly what an advanced nation like Australian needs to recover as quickly and as stealthily as we can,” Ms Jackson said.
Stakeholders have warned that research would suffer most from any job and income losses.
According to the Cooperative Research Centres Association’s chief executive, Tony Peacock, universities performed 43 per cent of Australia’s applied research.
By comparison, industry completed 30 per cent.
“There’s a real lesson in this from the global financial crisis … those countries that invested more heavily in research and didn’t cut back, they came out quicker from the GFC and they recovered to a higher level,” he said.
He also warned of a potential drain, saying, once lost, academics would be unlikely to return.
“The jobs that are in Canberra are high-knowledge-base jobs — in defence and the government and the law and the like — so we can’t afford to lose these people,” he said.
“Smart countries will back their smart people during this crisis, because they know that having a really intelligent workforce is absolutely central to keeping our economy going long-term.”
Early career researchers and women most at risk
A research paper published last week warned that the disruption’s impacts would be disproportionately felt by junior researchers, recent graduates, early-career and mid-career researchers and women.
Ms Cox admits it will be hard to hang on if conditions do not improve in the near future.
She worries Australia is about to lose a generation of academics.
“I’m lucky enough to still have a job now, I’m really happy about that … but next semester, I have no idea if I’ll have any work,” she said.
“I’m thinking about buying a house at some point or even having kids, and that’s not something that I can do in such a precarious situation.”