Australian universities warn of research “disaster” without government support amid virus outbreak

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Canberra – Australia’s universities have warned that the nation’s research capacity will be devastated by the coronavirus crisis without government support.

Universities Australia, on Wednesday, released modelling that found the sector could lose 16 billion Australian dollars ($11 billion) in revenue between 2020 and 2023 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The figures were released ahead of a meeting between the peak body and Education Minister, Dan Tehan, on Wednesday.

Tehan has dismissed calls from universities for government assistance, instead urging them to adjust their business models.

The government has guaranteed 18 billion AUD ($12.4 billion) in funding, previously committed to the sector, but has ruled out support for universities under its JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme.

Catriona Jackson, the Chief Executive of Universities Australia, said that the projected shortfall would have a long-lasting impact on university finances.

“We can’t pretend that won’t have a big impact.

“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,’’ she said in a media release.

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

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

Universities accounted for 34 per cent of Australia’s investment in research and development in financial year 2017-18, up from 24 per cent a decade earlier.

Brian Schmidt, the Vice-Chancellor of Australian National University (ANU), told News Corp Australia that ANU has resorted to using international student fees to fund its research amid the pandemic.

“That money is going to go and the question is: what is Australia going to do about it?

“All the evidence is that when you invest in research in universities, you get large economic spill-overs,’’ he said.

“This is an impending disaster, which needs to be sorted out in the next few months.

“Universities like my own will have to make decisions about what activities we can afford to do and what we can’t.

“We’re to lose a potential early-career researcher generation.’’

The Group of Eight (Go8), a coalition of Australia’s top universities, said that prior to the pandemic, research from its members “pumped almost 25 billion AUD ($17.3 billion) into the economy each year’’.

“Life, as we know it, has changed dramatically and more than ever we need a research-led economic recovery – unashamedly focused on job creation, retraining, improved productivity processes and new industries supported by AI and hi-tech manufacturing,’’ Go8 Chief Executive, Vicki Thomson, said.

“COVID-19 has shone an uncomfortable light on what we have known all along – our funding system is broken, with an over-reliance on international fee income to prop up our university research – 70 per cent of which is undertaken in Go8 universities.’’

The warnings come as La Trobe University, which has more than 25,000 students across Australia, faces bankruptcy.

Nine Entertainment newspapers reported that La Trobe will be broke within weeks unless it can secure bank loans and an agreement with all staff on a 10 per cent pay cut.

In a briefing, sent to staff on Tuesday, Vice-Chancellor, John Dewar said that there was “no money tucked down the back of the sofa’’, warning that unless staff agreed to a pay cut, there would be 450 redundancies.


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