Australian universities hit by COVID-19 pandemic

Canberra: Australia’s universities were mulling ways on how to resume face-to-face classes during the COVID-19 crisis, while pressure mounts on international students who remain outside the country due to border shutdown.

The economic cost of the crisis to the country’s universities, heavily dependent on international students, could amount to A$4.6 billion ($3.01 billion) over the next six months as a result of the border closure.

“On this basis, an estimated 21,290 full time equivalent staff will lose their jobs in the next six months,” Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Universities Australia (UA), an organization representing the country’s 39 universities, told Efe news on Tuesday.

International students contributed some A$37.6 billion to the Australian economy in 2018-19, making education the fourth largest export in the country, after coal, iron and natural gas.

However, the pandemic has forced international students, who pay up to A$33,000 for their studies, to cancel their plans to study there and return to their home countries due to lack of employment and subsidies in Australia.

Meanwhile, the country plans to resume economic activities in July after controlling the coronavirus.

Currently, it is estimated that 10 per cent of the affected students still cannot enter Australia, although Jackson stressed that it does not mean that they have traded Australia for other options.

“There is no evidence to suggest that international students will choose to undertake their studies elsewhere as a result of COVID-19. Australia is seen as a safe, welcoming destination which has responded effectively to the pandemic,” she said.

Many Australian universities have urged the government to allow international students, who account for a third of the 1.5 million students in the country, to return.

Meanwhile, with an eye on the next academic session, the “universities are now working closely with government and health authorities on the carefully staged return to face-to-face learning”, said Jackson.

The pandemic has also dealt a severe blow to a lot of researches at universities, which account for 90 per cent of research in Australia, as a large part of them has been cancelled and their funds diverted for tackling the novel coronavirus.

The cut in employment in universities will affect some 7,000 people linked to academic research and 9,000 international students who will interrupt their research this year, according to a recent study coordinated by the government’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Tuesday that vocational training for skilled workers will be his government’s priority to train young people for the jobs they are looking to create.