GWILYM CROUCHER and WILLIAM LOCKE. A post-coronavirus pandemic world for Australian higher education: Part 2

May 21, 2020

The pandemic is magnifying existing pressures for universities but is also providing new possibilities. How universities respond will determine their future

As we noted in part 1, what the coming months and years mean for higher education in Australia and around the world is difficult to predict. However, past experiences of similar economic, political and social ‘shocks’ to the provision of higher education provide some hints to where we might be heading. In this way the coronavirus pandemic is magnifying existing pressures for universities but is also providing new possibilities. We outline further trends and their implications here in part 2.

Greater reliance on areas of expertise deemed relevant to economic and social recovery

Governments and other actors may come to rely on areas of expertise seen as relevant to economic and social recovery as the scale of the social and economic disruption is akin in many crucial ways to the Great Depression and is the largest outside of wartime, meaning that expertise becomes a valuable part of the response, as it has been for previous crises. While genuine debate will continue as to the best response, the differing responses to the pandemic to date in different countries shows the importance and effectiveness of expert advice for those governments that have followed it. Many news media organisations have given a high profile to expert commentary, in contrast to disinformation spreading on social media.

The importance of experts in advising governments amplifies the status of science, expertise and research as bedrock of the evidence-base for policy. As universities are central providers of expertise and research, their social, economic and public policy purposes are clear, as academics with expertise in infectious diseases, public health, mental wellbeing, social media, economic recovery, etc, are being seen as important sources of advice for ministers and premiers. The role of expertise in assisting recovery and reconstruction presents an important opportunity for universities and their academics to lead public debates and shape outcomes on multiple fronts.

However, there are risks to university finances that may make this harder.

Diminishing capacity for governments to invest in higher education and research

Governments in many countries will have less capacity to invest in higher education. The public policy response to the coronavirus has seen governments outlay huge sums for health, social and employment programs, as well as for other measures. It is likely that these stimulus and safety net programs will need to be funded for several years following the initial pandemic. Along with reduced taxation revenue due to recessions across most advanced nations, governments are in a difficult position as citizens demand that areas of public policy and public service delivery other than higher education, such as healthcare and school education, be prioritised.

In Australia there will likely be little scope for additional government support for higher education. While it is possible government will need to consider radical policy options to focus public outlays, these would cause massive disruption. In the immediate term there could be significant disruption from the introduction of higher student fees, targeting equity and other support programs to particular institutions, mandating student contributions differentiated by mode and level of study, separating research funding from teaching funding even further, and funding some institutions at a reduced rate to only teach. More certain is that universities will employ a range of measures to reduce outlays in the immediate term and will reconfigure their offerings and business models.

Reorganisation of universities and their workforces

The significant disruption to operations during 2020 means that many casual staff and those on short term contracts may be forced to seek employment outside the sector. Changing student demand for particular courses, reduced activity in some areas and the shift to online may mean universities require more staff in some areas and fewer in others, especially where there is a shift in the skills requirements. Over the longer term this may mean the nature of much academic work may change, with larger roles played by learning designers, educational technologists and study support staff, for example. We may even see the rise of global academic ‘superstars’ going freelance and offering content to a number of universities.

There is the risk that, as Australian higher education reduces its workforce, the next generation of academics and researchers are lost to other careers and that they will need to be replaced to avoid a permanently reduced capacity. Equally, career progress of early career academics could be stalled due to the lack of opportunities to develop their research and move between universities, including internationally. There is a case for prioritising support for the next generation of teachers and researchers.

Uncertain future opportunities for research and collaboration

The prospects for future opportunities for research collaboration are uncertain. There are uncertainties about how the global research system will cope with restricted international travel and the shift to online communication may inhibit some forms of collaboration and will reduce opportunities for visiting researchers. The forced use of teleconferencing for collaboration may mean that Australia’s distance from Northern America and Europe is less of a disadvantage as face-to-face collaboration ceases. Both philanthropic donors and government programs that support the generation of new ideas and international collaborations, such as Horizon Europe, may have diminished funds and capacity to support new projects. Research associated with dealing with the pandemic and post-pandemic recovery will likely be the focus of many academics, and so will present new opportunities.

The growth in international collaboration may slow and stagnate, with long term implications for the pace and direction of advancement in some fields. There will be an opportunity for Australian researchers as online communication ‘levels the playing field’. For Australia, like other countries, collaborators may come to rely more heavily on government support in their own countries and advancements in knowledge may be more tied to where researchers are all located in a single country than at present.

There will potentially be fewer students traveling for international doctoral study because of difficulties gaining visas and entry and where universities cannot afford to offer the same level of internally funded scholarships for international students. Australian higher education could benefit from reduced provision of doctoral programs at international competitor institutions. Yet it may also suffer as students either decide against, or are not allowed to, travel for study. The combined impact of the pandemic on international research students and the reduction in fees from all international students may have a serious knock-on effect on Australia’s research and development capacity.

Policy questions

The possible trends summarised here suggest a range of outcomes and questions for Australian higher education. The international market may be slow to recover, and a number of strategies for growing revenue and activity, such as philanthropy, transnational education and commercial research contracts will be less viable. Some difficult public-policy choices become more likely and are contingent on the return of the international market. This begs the question of what is a realistic funding model that covers the teaching component of university spending where universities come to rely more heavily on public funding in Australia? And of how many universities might face severe to catastrophic financial problems? Depending on what the future holds this may present hard choices for governments.

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