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University funding to decrease by 9.3% over next four years

International students may be able to return to Australia in late 2021.

Funding for higher education will decrease by 9.3% in real terms over the next four years, according to Federal Budget documents released tonight.

The drop is attributed to “lower costs” under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme as a result of the Job-ready Graduates package, passed in October last year. The package, aimed at redirecting incoming students towards certain degrees, saw the cost of humanities degrees double, with significant increases to fees for law and business. USyd’s 2021 Semester 1 census results indicate that the package was unsuccessful in changing USyd’s most popular courses.

The Government has also signaled that international students may be able to return to Australia soon, with the Government trialling “small phased programs” in late 2021, ahead of borders potentially opening in mid-2022. However, Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said in a statement that waiting until mid-2022 would “pose very serious challenges for the nation’s universities,” and cause “serious damage to national productivity and the country’s knowledge base.”

International students seem to be a key part of the Government’s fiscal strategy, with projections for several Budget estimates dependent on “education exports” bouncing back to near pre-COVID levels.

Elsewhere in the budget, the Government has slashed $1.3 billion in “student assistance” in the form of “temporary COVID-19 support measures”, and $1 billion in temporary funding for higher education research on COVID-related issues.

The government’s FEE-HELP loan fee exemption will be extended until the end of 2021, but only for students at private education providers.

Successive Australian governments have not increased funding for universities in proportion to enrolments. Although domestic student enrolments increased by 33% from 2009 to 2019, government funding for higher education, as a proportion of revenue, steadily declined during that time (from 55.8% to 48.7%). Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Australian university lobby Group of Eight, previously said that it “confirms that we are being asked to do more with effectively the same amount of money.”