In our latest opinion piece, John Doyle and Scott Doidge survey the effect of COVID on the university sector, and urge the higher education sector to use this crisis to reinvigorate its broader mission as a pillar of civic society.

As 2020 dawned, Australia’s university sector was anticipating another prosperous year, notwithstanding perennial concerns about government funding and policy prescriptions. But within months, Covid-19 struck. University revenues have disintegrated, staff have been jettisoned and campuses closed. On top of this, the Morrison government has excluded universities from JobKeeper and is shaking-up funding arrangements.

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These dramatic developments have called into question the viability of current university business models, which reflect the confidence of thirty years of continuous economic growth. They have also reignited wider value debates on the purpose of Australia’s universities—their relationship to the public good, and the appropriate balance between government and private funding—the antecedents of which go back to the sector’s colonial origins.

Australia’s early universities, maintained by public money and student fees, mirrored British traditions, albeit tailored to local requirements. University programs focused on addressing the colonies’ need for skilled professionals. Student demand for practical professional training reinforced this approach and, together, these considerations shaped the subsequent development of Australian higher education.

Despite egalitarian pretensions, universities were principally training grounds for the elite until well into last century. Government policy began to reflect a deepening appreciation of their role in Australian social and economic life in the post-war years. Tertiary education funding increased tenfold under the Menzies government and Whitlam’s commitment to wider participation saw student fees abolished. Throughout this period, there was a bipartisan policy consensus that higher education represented a public good.

Since the late 1980s, however, the sector’s ‘massification’ has been accompanied by a shift in its conceptualisation from being a public to private good. In part, this has been a consequence of rising costs associated with ever increasing student numbers. In 1982, around 10 percent of school leavers went to university. By 1992, this figure had nearly doubled. By 2017, it was over 40 percent. The Hawke government’s introduction of HECS in 1989, which saw the return of students directly contributing to the cost of their studies, represented an early policy step in this direction.

Between 1994 and 2018, full-fee paying international student enrolments in Australian universities increased tenfold, to constitute a quarter of all students and contribute to Australian higher education becoming, pre-pandemic, a $30 billion industry.

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A striking dichotomy has developed in higher education over the last quarter century: a highly regulated domestic sector on one hand, and a substantially laissez-faire international sector on the other. While local students’ course fees are subject to direct government control, universities can charge international students whatever they wish and act comparatively freely in a competitive global marketplace.

Australian universities have come to operate in a self-perpetuating cycle. With government funding as a proportion of GDP trending downwards since the mid-1970s, international student revenue has increasingly underpinned research budgets and capital works aimed at improving league table rankings; higher rankings attract more international students willing to pay higher fees; increased revenues underpin further research and capital works; and on it goes. In a nutshell, this has been the trigger of the current crisis.

The collapse in international student numbers could cost the sector up to $4.8 billion in 2020, and $16 billion by the end of 2023, according to Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson. Insecurely employed academics, who comprise about 40 percent of staff and perform around 70 percent of undergraduate teaching, have already been discarded. It is predicted that retrenchments equating to up to 21,000 full-time-equivalent roles will occur by the end of 2020.  

Against this backdrop, education minister Dan Tehan has announced a funding overhaul designed to ensure that universities ‘teach Australians the skills needed to succeed in the jobs of the future’. This ‘Job-ready’ policy exemplifies the ‘employability skills agenda’ that has been a key feature of tertiary education since the Dawkins reforms.

The government wants more graduates in areas such as teaching, nursing, agriculture, STEM and IT; and more university-industry partnerships ‘to drive workforce participation and productivity’. Domestic student fees will be adjusted to function as ‘a price signal’ to encourage students to ‘tailor their studies to areas of future jobs growth’. This plan, and its interaction with lower government subsidies, has been widely reported.

The government has made little effort to justify its proposal to more than double fees for humanities and social sciences subjects. It has effectively declared them of little relevance for the ‘jobs of the future’; a claim contradicted by established evidence. Government data shows that the top five employment destinations for humanities graduates are in future growth sectors. Australian Academy of the Humanities president, Professor Joy Damousi, points out that humanities and social sciences training provides skills ‘highly valued by employers and in the workforce’ and that the government’s fees plan will, in fact, ‘adversely impact [its] future jobs agenda’.

These claims are supported by the business community. Head of the Australian Industry Group, Innes Willox, opposes cutting fees for some disciplines ‘at the expense of increased fees in the humanities [which train] future workers who will fill important professional roles required by industry’. And Engineering Australia’s chief executive, Bronwyn Evans, asserts that the ‘future of engineering requires a diversity of students who have a breadth of knowledge that extends beyond the technical’; engineering-law and engineering-arts degrees ‘are very important for a really well-rounded engineering graduate’.

Confronted by the rapidly changing world of work, evidence points to the future workforce needing to be flexible, innovative and possessing strong critical thinking and interpersonal skills—traits identified with humanities and social science graduates. In ignoring this, it seems that the humanities and social sciences have been identified as an easy target for a government looking to reduce higher education funding while also taking an opportunity for some culture war score-settling.

Looking ahead, Australia’s university sector will retain its global focus and commitment to mass education but will be reduced in scale for the foreseeable future. In the absence of alternative revenue sources, securing the resumption of international student enrolments is an immediate priority. But how universities and domestic students respond to its planned new funding arrangements is uncertain. It is unlikely, though, that the government will see the behavioural shifts it is looking for. As critics have suggested, this is because of the contradictory incentives provided by the mooted fee and subsidy changes and the deferred payment structure of HECS.

Pre-pandemic trends towards university-industry collaboration, and fostering greater connections between the higher and vocational education systems, will continue and likely accelerate given the government’s reinvigorated jobs-ready focus. Broad support within both systems for more flexible student pathways, and an increasing focus on offering shorter sub-degree courses including micro-credentials, closely aligns with Tehan’s view that, post-Covid, people will need ‘a mixture of certified skills,’ necessitating ‘once and for all, resetting the relationship between the two streams of education’. There is also potential for greater competition from new for-profit education providers.

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From their neo-British pragmatic origins, Australian universities have come to operate within a diverse range of perspectives on their social role and purpose. But the increased marketisation of higher education in recent decades has seen these perspectives narrow. A growing emphasis on aligning the sector with industry and national strategic goals, including developing a lucrative yet vulnerable service export industry, has come at the expense of articulating the broader public good that universities provide.

Covid’s radical disruption of business-as-usual provides a powerful impetus for renewed reflection about the substantive values that underlie Australia’s universities. They are, by definition, cosmopolitan institutions and the disinterested pursuit of knowledge is at the heart of their purpose. If the higher education sector does not utilise this period of flux to reinvigorate its wider mission, this crisis will have been a wasted opportunity. 


This opinion piece is adapted from Scott Doidge and John Doyle, ‘Australian universities in the age of Covid’, Educational Philosophy and Theory (2020),

John Doyle
John Doyle

John Doyle is a honorary research fellow in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University, an associate of the Contemporary Histories Research Group at Deakin University, and a researcher and adviser at Brighton Grammar School. His current research focuses on contemporary issues in education; the future of education, work and careers; and the politics of Australian telecommunications reform.

Scott Doidge
Scott Doidge

Scott Doidge is a teaching associate at the Australian Catholic University. His research interests are in social theory, cultural sociology, the sociology of education and the history of ideas. His current research focuses on the intersection of the arts and social theory and examines the historical, political and social context of contemporary debates over the value and relevance of the humanities and social sciences.