Posted 26/08/2021 by: Professor David Lloyd

The expansion of the vaccination roll-out (roll-up?) in SA to include everyone over the age of 16 is a hugely positive step in our collectively charting a return to something akin to normal life (whatever that is – answers on a postcard please). Notwithstanding the clear-cut health benefits, through the ‘return to normal’ lens, high vaccination rates will trigger the relaxation of restrictions, will trigger the reopening of borders – national and international, will trigger the return of travel and migration – they’ll herald a return to life under our control, not in the control of some unseen malevolent microscopic life-threatening foe that somehow infringes on our civil liberties by remote control.

We could have a whole other blog all about what we might do if we had a time machine and could go back to early 2020 and accelerate the roll-out – we are where we are on that particular issue – this blog is about what we might do next.

More accurately, this blog is about what we need to stop doing right now.

Ironic, in the context of us being unstoppable.

Please indulge some digression.

Unlike most businesses, and I am not going to make any apologies to any ideological purists reading this, let’s be clear, we are a business, we are a $700m not-for-loss organisation, and our successful performance as a business directly enables the employment of a shade over 5000 people in full and part time continuing, fixed-term and casual roles (long before we go into what our expenditure and our major capital and infrastructure investments and the multiplier effect of our international students etc, etc, all add indirectly to the national and South Australian economies, and don’t get me started on the fact that all of those benefits only flow from our successful performance as a business), the pandemic has impacted universities in a particularly insidious way.1

Unlike many other typical businesses – the majority of our customers consume our product once, on a multiannual basis, typically it takes them three years, and then they move on. We have to find new customers to replace those that leave, all the time. On the domestic front, the pandemic hasn’t disrupted us that much. It has precipitated some questionable behaviour in our ‘competitors’, but by and large we are holding our own – locally, and, through UniSA Online, we are in many instances leading nationally. However, our business, Australian education provision, is a tale of two markets – domestic and international. The pandemic has particularly impacted on and reduced our capacity to furnish our principal product (education) to a key segment of our customers (international students) in the way they would ordinarily consume it (onshore, on-campus). The same pattern of multiannual consumption and exit applies to international students. In fact, with international students, the cycle of exiting from consumption is actually shorter – as many are postgraduate students completing in two years. Thanks to COVID19, we do not have a means of materially replenishing those who leave. Aside from those we can enrol online, offshore, and who aspire to transition to onshore education when border restrictions are relaxed, there has been no pipeline of onshore students becoming first years to replace our completing students, since the beginning of 2020.

Which, when you think of it, is probably why 2020 sectoral data doesn’t look so disastrous.

Only the tip of the spear of COVID impact is seen in the 2020 numbers.

The 2021 data will show a cohort of exiting international students largely unreplaced – as 2020’s first years become second years and second and third years inevitably successfully complete their studies – with no enrolment of scale of first years coming in behind them. And so, a gap opens up. A fiscal gap, which passes through the system for at least two to three years. A non-cohort.

No midyear intake of scale in 2020. No first semester intake of scale in 2021. No midyear intake of scale in 2021.

The gap widens all the while the border remains closed.

Let’s project forward. No first semester intake of scale in 2022.

Vaccination.

Relaxation.

Perhaps a midyear intake of some scale in 2022.

Perhaps. Certainly not sufficient to bridge the fiscal gap that has embedded in the business over the previous two years. And that’s the rub. It’s unseen and it’s travelling. It’s unseen in annual reports. It’s travelling in the actuals – the reduced budgetary projections, where ironically we hope that our forecasting is for once, not accurate. But the gap is certainly there, and it is material.

Vaccination. It unlocks all manner of things. Including sustainability of our business. Underpinning 5051 jobs.

Meanwhile, we manage. We reduce costs and practice prudence. Coincident with restriction and eroded freedoms, it is definitely wearing. We all recognise this. It impacts on our sense of the possible. We can default to why bother and run the risk of giving in to apathy.

Apathy leads to atrophy and atrophy leads to withering. The path to a different dark side.

A path which is quite stoppable.

We must raise our gaze. 30 years young. We must look at and celebrate our outstanding performance in research and in teaching. At the successes of our graduating students, the pride of their family and friends and at the accolades of our partners who employ them and engage with us out of considered choice. We should look at the optimism and hope of new commencers and aspiring future students attending at open days – filled with potential and ready to embrace the adventure of higher education – and its great equitability of empowerment.

We have so much control of what we do – let’s stop any trajectory to apathy by reflecting now on what we do well and take justified pride in it and in so doing, let us also reflect on how we can make it even better. Why settle? Let’s take the opportunity to put a line under anything we don’t do so well – and let’s change that, it’s wholly within our control, it’s constructive and cathartic.

We have the means to do this, now.  We are positioned so much better than most in the sector – let’s not lose sight of that, and the opportunity that privileged position affords us as we look towards the closing of that insidious gap – and to making the most of those future freedoms that are almost upon us.

With our support, our will and effort to get vaccinated, now, and to commit to better (not meh), now, let’s raise our gaze away from the dark, to embrace the possible, and cement our freedoms’ arrival as unstoppable.

1. That’s right – that was a 125 worder, folks, count ‘em.

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Professor David Lloyd

Through The Big Picture, I hope that our whole community gains a greater and current appreciation of what is going on, how it fits together and how our activities connect and reinforce each other at a whole of enterprise level.

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