Australia’s universities are stewards of a vast wealth of expertise and knowledge that can be deployed on behalf of the nation. In a year filled with uncertainty and hardship, universities are working hard to make sure the future for Australians is bright. Universities are creating the knowledge that will make us safe. Australia’s universities are making sure that the economy will continue to have the skilled graduates it needs, to drive our economic recovery.

The pandemic has created significant challenges for Australia’s universities. Physical distancing requirements have disrupted face-to-face teaching and on-site research activities, as well as curtailing the ability of universities to provide many community services. Border closures have prevented the normal flow of international students to and from Australia, interrupting their studies and presenting a substantial financial challenge for universities. At the same time, universities remain keenly aware of their role to respond to the challenges that the community faces, through vital research to beat COVID-19 and providing Australians with the knowledge and skills they will need to have the best chance of securing employment and wellbeing as Australia recovers from the economic effects of COVID-19.

The disruptive effects of the pandemic on international education will have impacts throughout the Australian economy. The reduction in revenue from international education will have a serious flow-on effect to the capacity of Australia’s universities to conduct research and development on behalf of the nation. Universities conduct more than a third of all R&D in Australia, including 43 per cent of the nation’s applied research and virtually all discovery research. More than half of this (56 per cent) is funded through university internal revenue sources. This substantial contribution to Australia’s prosperity is at risk through the effects of the pandemic.

Universities Australia is also concerned about the effects of the pandemic on some of the most vulnerable in society. Psychology and social work students have been involved in providing mental health and social support via tele-health to people facing ongoing and COVID-19 specific challenges such as social isolation, job-loss and other issues. There is also concern for temporary visa holders (such as international students) who are unable to access Australian social security systems, and for whom returning to their countries of origin may not be feasible. Australia’s universities are attempting to assist students and staff through hardship funds, but the resources available to assist those in need is limited.

Universities Australia encourages the Government to recognise the central role of universities in the COVID-19 response and recovery. If we integrate the invaluable human capital and knowledge that universities build into our response and recovery, we can create new opportunities for Australians to prosper. Australia has significant assets in intellectual capital and research infrastructure that we can use to speed up our recovery; assets that universities have built for the benefit of Australia. We look forward to working with Government to ensure the value of these assets are preserved through the pandemic, and will continue to assist Australia to reach its full potential.

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