Why regional universities and communities need targeted help to ride out the coronavirus storm
Without targeted government support for smaller universities, the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on regional communities could be devastating.
Australian universities are expected to lose billions of dollars in revenue due to the impacts of COVID-19. The estimated lost revenue from international students alone is A$18 billion by 2024. While all universities are affected, regional universities and communities are the most vulnerable.
Regional communities have limited resources, so their universities play a pivotal role in their economies. These universities must adjust to the rapidly changing circumstances and government policy changes, or risk jeopardising regional economic growth and jobs. Without targeted government support for these smaller universities, the long-term impacts on regional communities could be devastating.
The Regional Universities Network (RUN) includes CQUniversity, Southern Cross University, Federation University Australia, University of New England, University of Southern Queensland, University of the Sunshine Coast and Charles Sturt University. CQUniversity, where 39% of students are international students, has a revenue shortfall of A$116 million for 2020. Charles Sturt University (32% international students) faces a loss of about A$80 million.
In April the federal government guaranteed A$18 billion in university funding this year to help the sector through the coronavirus crisis. It also provided A$100 million in regulatory fee relief.
The chair of Universities Australia, Deborah Terry, welcomed this as a “first step”. However, she warned an estimated 21,000 jobs would still be lost.
In June, the government announced the Job-ready Graduates Package. It plans to lower student fees for selected courses (and raise others) to encourage study for what the government deems to be jobs of the future.
guaranteed bachelor-level Commonwealth-supported places to support more Indigenous students from regional and remote areas to go to any public university.
The government has also promised a A$900 million industry linkage fund. The aim is to help universities build stronger relationships with STEM industries and provide work-integrated learning opportunities.
The Regional Universities Network welcomed the package. Bartlett said:
Lowering the cost of the student contribution for courses such as nursing, allied health, teaching, agriculture, engineering, IT and maths should encourage greater uptake by regional students in these areas. It is estimated that there should be more places in the regions. More graduates from our universities will produce more graduates to work in regional Australia in areas of skills need.
As the COVID-19 economic battle is ever evolving, the tertiary education sector must be vigilant. Spending should be prioritised to make it equitable for all universities and their communities. Decision-makers need to be aware of the key issues affecting the success of tertiary education in the regions and their dependent communities.
Regional engagement activities and programs, backed by increased funding, improve the prospects of successfully weathering the COVID-19 storm. Regional universities can deliver national benefits, by overcoming skill shortages and meeting local workforce needs, while contributing to public and private community services such as schools and health services.
The government package is important for all universities, but this support is the only means of regional universities surviving. If they are not supported and are forced to close, regional education and economies will suffer for many years.