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Adelaide Uni warns of 'crisis' unless overseas students return

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Adelaide University Vice-Chancellor Peter Høj has warned of a higher education sector crisis unless borders reopen to international students, despite the university recording a “better than expected” surplus for a pandemic-hit financial year.

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In a media statement this morning, Høj warned that the number of new international students enrolments at Australian universities appeared to be down by 37 per cent this year, leading to “sustained losses for Australian universities for at least three years”.

He said at the University of Adelaide, international commencing enrolments for semester one were down by 17 per cent, with “strong indications of significant further deterioration”.

“Without a rapid opening of borders to international students, this will be exacerbated to what could be crisis- like dimensions that will threaten the country’s research base dramatically, at a time when we are looking to utilise it to pivot to a more resilient economy with enhanced sovereign capability,” he said.

“It is critical for the future of South Australia that our number one export industry, education, is able to thrive again, by bringing international students back to the State in a safe and responsible manner.”

It comes as Adelaide University released its audited financial results for 2020, which show a statutory net operating surplus of $40.8 million for 2020 – down from $42.9 million the year before.

The 2020 figure includes $10 million in donations and bequests, and $20 million in research funding from the Federal Government to establish a new cancer institute.

According to the university, without the donations and bequests, its 2020 surplus would have only been $10 million.

Total revenue came in at $977 million, while research generated a further $234 million.

Høj said in “simplistic terms”, the results looked “better than expected”, but the COVID-19 pandemic had caused a “much more complex and challenging situation than these numbers show”.

“In a pre-COVID environment, the University of Adelaide started 2020 predicting significant growth in both domestic and international students, and we were set to exceed $1 billion in operational revenue and play a continued key role in South Australia’s number one export market: education,” he said.

“After the pandemic hit, the University’s financial position for 2020 fell well short of its initial targeted revenue projections.

“This would have placed the institution under much greater financial stress had it not been for the University management’s swift action – and the support of our staff – to implement a range of savings measures.”

The University managed to recoup $90 million by axing 157 staff, introducing purchased leave and hitting pause on the hiring new staff and progressing with infrastructure projects.

It also reported “better-than-expected” enrolments and a “record year” for research revenue and donations.

But the university also saw an ongoing reduction in the pipeline of international students, meaning its finances “will be impacted very dramatically in the coming years”.

It comes after Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told an Adelaide audience last week that Government had made an assumption that Australia would start welcoming back international students from the end of this year, subject to discussions between the state governments and universities about quarantine arrangements.

“I have been very pleased with the State Government’s commitment to achieving this and delighted that Prime Minister Morrison has recently declared the return of international students is now the ‘priority’,” Høj said.

International education is a $2 billion industry in South Australia.

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