From the Vice Chancellor

Professor David Lloyd, Vice Chancellor and President

As the global COVID-19 infection rate tips past 4.8 million this month, the steps national and local governments have implemented have had a strong impact in Australia and we are in a far better position than many other countries facing the dreadful challenges of this pandemic.

But our challenges have not disappeared and the measures in place to contain COVID-19 have not been without their own societal and economic costs.

Here in Australia the turmoil of restrictions on travel within the country, rapid and unexpected unemployment as many businesses came to a sudden close, and social isolation, have taken their toll.

This has impacted a range of vulnerable people in the community, including the thousands of international students we welcomed here to study and gain the dual experience of learning their courses and the culture of another nation.

In all the supports that the Federal Government has rolled out to sustain the nation, these students have been overlooked.

Locally we have welcomed the new State Government initiative targeting support for these students and look forward to its contribution to their care.

And it’s important to understand why they need our consideration and care.

Australian governments since the late 1950s, when the first Colombo Plan was introduced, have understood the value of global engagement through education. At the most human level, every student who has a positive experience studying in South Australia, leaves as a virtual ambassador for this country.

They also form ties and friendships here that give local students a close-up view of other cultures, different and valuable experience, other value systems, and other ways of living and doing business. They give Australian students a foothold into global citizenship.

Economically, the income from international students has helped to ensure that the university system in Australia can afford to keep operating at an internationally competitive level and that more students, both local and international, have a wide choice of world-class university education.

Despite what many people assume, the students who come here are not all wealthy.

Many of them come from families who have struggled and sacrificed just to send one child overseas to get a good international education – and they do this knowing that their son or daughter will be working, studying and living frugally just to make ends meet.

When their work suddenly evaporates, as it has for so many of our students, there is no mum and dad to move home to, there are no financial safety nets.

Any notions that students can just return home when borders are closed and flights are sporadic and astronomically expensive, are careless. We instead, need to be care-full.

These are visitors to our country, they have come with a spirit of engagement, their families have supported their dreams, knowing we are a safe and civilised destination. Now, more that ever, we need to make good on our promises to provide a great and supportive educational experience for international students in Australia.

UniSA has established a $10m Student Hardship Fund to support all students who are struggling, but it is vital for international students and for Australia’s international reputation as a higher education provider, that we do not abandon them during these stressful times. We have also opened this fund to donations from our community – our staff, alumni and partners. What has been especially encouraging has been the large number of donations from our alumni around the world – reflecting the value they have all seen in the education experience at UniSA.

Already more than 1800 local and international students have applied for and been awarded grants that will help them stay afloat and stay on track with their education. The fund is doing what it set out to do, it’s making a difference.

Institutionally, collectively and individually, we've all taken a battering over the past couple of months and with continued uncertainty on the horizon, resilience and adaptability have become core business and life skills.

While there is understandable anxiety about the longer-term financial impacts on the University and its operations – I am not going to speculate or catastrophise about what is happening. Clarity and fact are clouded in forecasting, and forecasting is highly dependent on matters outside of our control.

We can only look at best and worst-case scenarios, and to be responsible, we must plan for the worst case – because it might happen, but we can hope for the best because that too, is possible.

The sheer breadth of the pandemic means we can’t predict an end point so we could be working through tough times for several years to come.

In UniSA’s favour, we have good domestic enrolments (the best we’ve ever had), we have had a diversified international student cohort (not heavily loaded to a single international student market), we have amazing online capabilities, we haven’t initiated expenditure on any new major capital projects, we have no debt and we have just successfully restructured our academic organisation, affording us the opportunity to do things differently and more efficiently – thanks to the flexibility and ingenuity of our staff.

And while none of that makes us immune to significant revenue loss, it means we are in a better position to withstand the impacts.

As we closely track our progress on closing the unfolding revenue gap and as the various projections and scenarios become clearer and more fine-grained, we do have options available to us which could further assist in balancing our books, while still preserving our employment levels.

In all scenarios we will be consulting and informing staff along the way.

To set us on the road to managing this situation across the next 20 months we have put a hold capital works, travel and hospitality, training and other discretionary budgetary elements because these interventions may have some impact on operations, but not on staffing.

While we continue to monitor and adapt to the unfolding situation, we will simultaneously be looking for growth opportunities, and to maximise efficiencies and the opportunities our new structure affords us to lead in this state and nationally.

It’s imperative that the momentum we have built as Australia’s University of Enterprise is maintained – because we will have a significant role to play in local and national recovery.

Whether the Australian higher education sector will quickly return to its pre-COVID standing is doubtful. It’s probably unlikely. But an agile, responsive, growth-geared university like ours will be ideally positioned to excel.

Professor David Lloyd
Vice Chancellor and President