Higher education has been lauded as playing a vital role in re-educating and reskilling those who have lost jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the sector has been hard hit by travel restrictions and border closures, impacting on the budget bottom line due to a decrease in international student enrolments.
The University of Tasmania has long had what has been described as an over-reliance of international students and has revealed it is likely to take a hit to the tune of $30-34 million in 2020. That budget deficit is predicted to balloon to between $60 and $120 million in 2021 and 2022.
CAITLIN JARVIS: International students have provided a significant portion of UTAS' income over the past several years. You have predicted a budget shortfall - how will you overcome this long-term challenge?
PROFESSOR BLACK: So we are still sitting in the range of a $34-36 million loss this year and next year somewhere in the $60-120 million loss, so that is still very substantial impact. One thing we're happy about is that our strategy has always been to transition to a much higher proportion of domestic and national students so that's been accelerated and the uptake of both our new course offerings and the Tasmania-specific ones have been positive. One good thing is we've seen strong growth in Tasmanian students coming to the university and an increase in domestic student's interest and engagement with the university.
CJ: Did you anticipate this impact?
RB: In terms of what's happening on the student front, certainly on the international side the things that are a real challenge is the outbreak [of COVID-19] in Victoria and the rising challenges in New South Wales and the rest of the world.
In our modelling, we worked off two main scenarios, that we would see waves of transmission, which is what we are seeing in Victoria and also we modelled off a Fortress Tasmania model, which showed the state could likely succeed in eliminating the virus.
Both of those we foresaw would lead to borders staying tight and of course, the borders are tight international student travel is non-existent.
And that looks like well that's certainly the case of the moment there's no international student travel. We have been able to offer online opportunities for international students and we've had quite a good uptake of that but it's a fraction of what we would normally see.
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CJ: Is the voluntary redundancy program how you will counteract the budget pressures?
RB: As part of our strategic plan we knew we had to move away from the reliance on international students. So, we knew that to do that we would need to be a smaller university and that means a smaller staff cohort. What has been helpful to us is that our staff have voted in favour of the pay rise freeze and that has helped us to keep many jobs. As you know, we've got internal reform going on to help us work with a smaller staff. So, what's really important to know if we are not trying to do the same amount of work with fewer staff.
CJ: How many staff will be made redundant?
RB: We don't have a target number, because we are aiming to reduce our salary component, so there would be a mix of senior staff and more junior staff. So it doesn't make sense for us to do it via headcount. Because we have to do this over a few years, the shortfall will be between $60 to $120 million so we will be able to do that in a range of ways.
We have had an interest level of what you might expect; we are seeing those who are putting up their hands are the ones who are at the stage of their careers that it makes sense to do so. The redundancy program is available across all staff, there is no direct area we are looking to reduce.
CJ: How will an increase in domestic students help offset the budget shortfall left by the decline in international students?
RB: It will mean more effectively replacing international students with mainland students. We know domestic students will grow a modest amount but not as many as the population is about to start to shrink. Our domestic student capacity is a relatively small population to support a university of this quality.
So, we need a larger group and we'd like that group to be mainland students who would like to come here. Tasmania quite desperately needs to correct its demographic pyramid because we have to support a large number of people who are at the end of their working lives. So the university I think has quite an important role to play in bringing mainlanders to Tasmania who wants to you know, contribute to Tasmania's economy and society.
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So, it will not only strengthen the university but it'll strengthen the state. We want more people from other states to come and study and make their lives here. Even if the modest proportion of them to stay it'll make a big difference. We need to do what we are already doing, which is to make sure we have a strong domestic cohort, that we are serving Tasmania.