Along with the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, the government has said it will guarantee HELP [loan] funding streams at current levels, meaning universities will continue to receive cash “even if there is a fall in domestic student numbers”.

Its latest rescue package also includes funding for new short courses for the unemployed and $100 million in regulatory relief.

“Like the rest of the Australian community, the higher education sector has taken a financial hit because of the coronavirus,” Federal education minister Dan Tehan said.

“We estimate 21,000 jobs at Australian universities will go within the next six months”

He announced the funding guarantee at current levels and greater flexibility in the use of these funds than ever before.

In a bid to enable Australians who have been impacted to reskill, he said the cost to study short, online courses from universities and private providers would be “slashed”. Courses will start at the beginning of May and initially will run for six months, according to his press statement.

Commentators questioned how the new funding model for micro-credentials would work in practice; the plan is still being finalised.

“This plan will help Australians who have lost their job or are looking to retrain to use their time studying nursing, teaching, counselling, allied health or other areas considered national priorities,” Tehan said.

“These reforms will help universities pivot towards a closer alignment of domestic industry and student demands through innovative micro-credentials delivered flexibly online.”

The minister added that the relief for universities will “unashamedly” prioritise domestic students.

“We’re going to need our university sector, we’re going to need our broader tertiary sector to retrain and reskill Australians to help us emerge from the pandemic even stronger,” Tehan said.

However, stakeholders warn that the announcement is “nowhere near enough” to cover conservative revenue decline estimates of up to $4.6 billion, with thousands of jobs at Australian universities anticipated to be lost of the next six months.

Universities Australia said the commitment to guarantee Commonwealth Grant Scheme and HELP funding payments for 2020 was “an important first step in ensuring the viability of the nation’s universities”.

But even with the funding commitment, the will be a tough road ahead for many institutions, the organisation indicated.

“We estimate 21,000 jobs at Australian universities will go within the next six months. Without guaranteed CGS and HELP funding that figure would have been even higher,” UA chair Deborah Terry said.

Universities are already cutting costs via a reduction in operational spending and senior staff salaries. Some are also deferring “vital” capital works, she added.

“This will be nowhere near enough to cover what we conservatively estimate as a revenue decline of between $3 billion and $4.6 billion.”

UA will continue to support international and local students who have lost their part-time jobs, Terry added.

“Many of our students are struggling to pay rent and buy food. Universities are offering crisis support, but more  will be required.”

Others have argued that not enough measures had been introduced to protect international students in Australia.

The ‘relief’ package for higher education announced by education minister Dan Tehan will do nothing to address the anticipated multi-billion shortfall in university income this year, the National Tertiary Education Union said in a statement.

“The $18 billion that Tehan is trumpeting is already budgeted for,” wrote NTEU national president Alison Barnes.

“We’re happy to take their money in the good times… But we say ‘sorry, you’re on your own’ in the bad times”

“It’s the government funding for domestic students that universities were already expecting. None of it is new money.”

Barnes added that it will “not plug the gaping hole in university finances left by the drop in international student income”.

Earlier in April, a number of calls for further international student support in Australia were made, with IEAA calling for a national hardship fund, Melbourne city council talking about hardship support and a No Worker Left Behind campaign taking off.

“We’re disappointed that the government has effectively abandoned international students, who may face being stranded here with no money and no income,” Barnes added.

“We’re happy to take their money in the good times, to the point where it made up over 26% of university income in 2018. But we say ‘sorry, you’re on your own’ in the bad times? This is shameful behaviour.”

Australian National University higher education researcher, Andrew Norton, said the students should normally be expected to support themselves but not during the economic shutdown caused by the pandemic.

“When you do have a completely unanticipated crisis that means temporary migrants cannot support themselves, a country like Australia that takes the benefits of temporary migrants should also incur the costs,” he added.

Part of the government package involving “regulatory relief” means deferring payments that are usually required by education regulators.

New cost recovery arrangements for TEQSA, ASQA and for the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students (CRICOS) will all be deferred by 12 months to 1 July 2021.

Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business Senator, Michaelia Cash, said there would be significant regulatory and fee relief provided to the vocational education and training sector, as well as higher education.

“We’re listening to industry, which is why fees charged by the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA), and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) will be refunded or waived,” Cash said.

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