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We are weakening the institutions that can solve coronavirus

By Dorothea Anthony - posted Friday, 26 June 2020

Universities across the world are floundering from the effects of coronavirus. Many have lost significant income from falling student numbers, vacant student accommodation and inopportune investments. Some are struggling to survive and risk bankruptcy. Countless universities are cutting jobs and pay and conditions, which is further shrinking these institutions and compromising their scholarship – including scholarship on COVID-19.

But we cannot merely blame coronavirus. The seeds of this crisis were planted long ago.

The Australian tertiary education system provides a case in point. Nearly all of its 43 universities may in some sense be public authorities that are exempt from the Australian corporations legislation. Yet increasingly they have become independent of government and have adopted corporate modes of operation. They are expected to be largely self-sufficient, much like companies in the private economy.


So when faced with financial pressure, such as from COVID-19, Australian universities can only ask the government for financial support and cannot expect it as a matter of course. Despite their public façade and their part-public funding model, universities are decreasingly seen as a responsibility, let alone a component part, of the public.

Apart from some minor initiatives, the Australian government has indicated that universities must themselves pick up the pieces from the coronavirus outbreak. This posture has led universities to pursue a frenzy of budget cuts, restructures and recruitment freezes.

With ambivalence towards public education, universities have only partially approached the government for assistance, but are in any case lower in priority than failing airlines and other financially distressed corporate entities. Sacked university workers have likewise been restricted from accessing the welfare benefits that many in the private sector enjoy. Although they contribute to the economy, universities and their workers are less desirable to government because the product they produce has more of a social character than a commercial one.

This is regardless of the fact that Australian universities have learnt to commodify education, in transforming themselves from a marketplace of ideas to a literal marketplace.

They have sold millions of degrees to international students largely from the rising middle class in China and India, making education Australia's third biggest export, and have dramatically raised the price for domestic students through full-fee courses. They have invested heavily in the stock market, despite traditionally being considered non-profit charities. They have engaged in ambitious development projects, often involving the establishment of campuses across Australia and the world, with resultant debt shackling them to credit rating agencies like Standard and Poor's. They have actively sought private bequests. They have also accepted that they must compete with one another, work with private industry with strings attached, and strive for greater efficiencies.

Therefore, cost-cutting in the COVID-19 environment has been a natural reflex for universities. One might go so far as to suggest that coronavirus has presented these institutions with a welcome opportunity to put greater cost-saving measures in place. Indeed, it has been said that various universities are even overstating the effect of coronavirus on their financial affairs in order to reduce their operations to a paragon of efficiency.


However, these measures are not a logical response to a pandemic that is crippling the world and that we are struggling to understand.

We need as much intellectual capital as can be garnered to work out how to prevent and treat coronavirus, as well as how best to reorganise our economy around the management of the complex disease and ensure that justice and suitable living conditions prevail amid the crisis. This intellectual capital comes in large part from the academy, if not experts trained at universities.

On a daily basis, epidemiologists from universities are providing us with vital information on how the pandemic is developing and how to control it. This information is used by governments to put in place medical responses and draft laws to help limit the contagion, and is often communicated to people by a chief medical officer of government who is, in a number of countries, a university professor.

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Dorothea Anthony would like to thank Dr Gabriel Garcia for his comments.

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About the Author

Dr Dorothea Anthony is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Wollongong.

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