Funding diversity is the key to resilience for the Australian higher education sector

The pandemic has exposed a weakness in our research funding model in Australia. Instead of switching our overreliance from one source of funding to another, we must diversify to promote stability and resilience.

The pandemic has exposed a weakness in our research funding model in Australia.

Our 2020 border closures compromised international student enrolments, decimating an important source of funding. Commentators are quick to recommend a reliance on industry collaboration instead of international student enrolments to support a limping higher education industry, and more recently there has been an outpouring of government support for research commercialisation to the tune of $2.2 billion.

But a reliance on a new single source of funding to buttress our research may be equally short-sighted. Industry collaborations, like international enrolments, also require a conducive economic landscape.

In recent months there’s been some discussion as to how we can make Australian higher education attractive to international students. As a physically isolated nation with a relatively robust pandemic response, some commentators have pointed out that strict public health requirements and mandatory vaccination policies for on-campus learners may make Australia a more appealing education destination to international students who value their own safety and public health.

However, the rise in omicron cases threatening Australia’s reputation as a relatively covid-safe destination, alongside unpredictable changes to state-based rules regarding international student entry, represent a serious challenge for the sector. It’s not to be glossed over in a rush of sunny optimism and a race to restore the status quo.

We have revealed the weakness in a funding model that relies too heavily upon money from limited sources—the proverbial all-eggs-in-one-basket approach to funding.

If Australia can reclaim significant numbers of international enrolments, that’s fantastic—and not only for reasons of funding. Exposure to alternative perspectives, here represented by a mixing of people from diverse cultural backgrounds, is one of the core tenets of education.

But we’ve lately been given the opportunity to see how our higher education sector has historically been buttressed by international enrolments. We have also seen how it responds when that support is removed. Our pandemic response and subsequent border closures may be best viewed as the impetus to diversify sources of funding to promote greater resilience and stability in the sector for the future, rather than simply exchanging one dependency for another.

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