More job, course cuts tipped for Victorian universities

Victorian universities are expected to scrap more courses and further reduce staff numbers as prolonged coronavirus border closures continue to whack their bottom lines.

Universities are braced for even bigger financial hits this year and more pain again in 2022 after a number this week reported multimillion-dollar deficits in their annual reports for 2020.

La Trobe University says it anticipates further job losses this year.Credit:Erin Jonasson

RMIT, Swinburne and La Trobe each posted hefty deficits in the 2020 calendar year, with experts warning there is further pain to come as international students remain locked out of Australia. Victoria’s other main public universities – Melbourne, Deakin, Victoria and Federation – recorded lower surpluses last year, accounts released on Tuesday show.

La Trobe University says it anticipates further job losses this year due to the non-arrival of successive intakes of international students causing its revenue to drop by an estimated $170 million.

The University of Melbourne is forecasting a revenue shortfall of $290 million this year, and losses of close to $900 million over the three financial years to 2022.

It said the “future remains extremely uncertain as the effects of the pandemic will continue to be felt for several years to come, especially as Australia’s borders remain closed to international students and the borders of competitor countries are open”.

Victoria University says it expects operational revenue to fall this year, and possibly next year.

Higher education expert Andrew Norton, from the Australian National University, said on Wednesday he expected universities to announce further cost-cutting measures as the country enters its second year of COVID-19 border closures.

Professor Norton said universities would really feel the pinch if the government did not renew its research funding in the May 11 federal budget and international students remained unable to enter Australia.

“I think given where the international student numbers are going, it has to get more difficult for all of them this year compared to last year,” Professor Norton said. “Probably next year [will be] even worse depending on how the budget goes next week.

“For this year the blow has been softened a bit, particularly for the research-intensive universities, by the [government’s] $1 billion extra for the research support program.

“But we don’t know yet whether that will continue on into 2022.”

Professor Norton said universities would have lower staff costs in 2021 after sacking large numbers after the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020.

Education is Victoria’s number one services export. The freeze on international students and the federal government’s decision to deny the sector its wage subsidy scheme, JobKeeper, has led to the biggest crisis in higher education in decades.

The federal government, in turn, has criticised the sector for becoming overly reliant on international students, who are charged higher fees than domestic students.

Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge last week dampened the hopes of universities and schools by warning he was in no hurry to accept more arrivals as coronavirus rages overseas.

Monash University, Victoria’s biggest university, defied the trend by increasing its annual surplus to $267.3 million, but has forecast deficits in coming years.

“The ongoing uncertainty of 2021, the pipeline effect of fewer enrolled students, combined with a predicted further decline in commencing international student enrolments over 2022 and 2023, is anticipated to produce further deficits in the coming years,” wrote vice-chancellor Professor Margaret Gardner.

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