Coronavirus: Billions at stake as university sector faces pandemic pinch

The international education market - our nation's fifth-biggest export earner - has ground to a halt. 

Hundreds of academics are now calling for urgent Government help as universities face an immediate loss of around half-a-billion dollars as a result, with more pain to come. 

Education New Zealand figures show international students contribute around $5b to New Zealand's economy. And without any moves to bring back this lucrative source of revenue, there are concerns tertiary institutions will be left with a significant financial hole.

Founding member of the newly-formed Tertiary Education Action Group Aotearoa, Luke Oldfield, said there were concerns that this would lead to fewer opportunities within the sector in the coming years. 

"Many of the jobs that were earmarked for the future are now unlikely to happen," he said. 

"We are seeing emails bouncing around the department saying that there are going to be massive cuts in 2021.

"That means that people towards the end of their PhDs or just finishing their PhDs are going to be out of work." 

He is one of a group of academics that have petitioned the Government for increased funding and an end to the casualisation of the workforce. 

"We need to be funded to ensure that those precarious, those vulnerable workers are maintained as best as possible and not just dumped in the unemployment queue because that is going to ruin a generation of career research." 

Wellington-based academic Kezia Wallis knows what that looks like. Earlier this year she wrapped up research positions at Victoria University - then COVID-19 arrived. 

She was forced to go on a benefit to make ends meet. 

"Generally speaking people have told me it takes three to five years post doc. You are generally scrambling around for short-term, fixed-term and part-time contracts here and there." 

But she said as COVID-19 hit, pickings were slim. 

"I had to go on the benefit for the first time earlier this year. It was a pretty demoralising experience."

And if nothing is done to boost funding she fears more jobs will go - and it will be those already at a disadvantage already who will suffer.

"It is going to have massive ripple-on effects for students from [lower] socio-economic classes... the first staff who are going to kind of end up on the chopping block are probably going to be those staff that those students most look to. 

"And it is not going to be medicine that gets cut. It's not going to the the hard sciences necessarily. It is going to be the humanities and those subjects that are already struggling that are probably going to be targeted. 

"I think that is a real concern. Because what are we going to be like if we do not have a whole generation who can think critically, who can ask these questions?" 

Those in the sector say it has been underfunded long before the pandemic.

In 2017 just over half of tertiary funding came from the Government - compared to an average 70 per cent across the OECD.  A 2019 report shows New Zealand spends almost $2000 less per student than the average OECD country - well below Australia, the US and the UK. 

Universities have compensated by attracting overseas students who pay up to three times as much as their local classmates.

Universities New Zealand chair and vice-chancellor at Auckland University of Technology, Derek McCormack, said international students make a large contribution to institutions - financially and socially. 

"They make a large contribution to our financial situation. But as well as that they connect us to the world. They bring in different perspectives and an international dimension into our teaching and our learning, and the experience of our students and staff," he said. 

"They make an economic contribution to the country, international education in New Zealand is about the fifth-biggest export earner. It supports a lot of jobs." 

The sudden end to foreign student arrivals caused by New Zealand's border closure will cost universities an estimated half-a-billion dollars this year alone. 

And with no signs as to when our borders will reopen the tertiary sector's booming international market is - for now - a distant dream.  

But as a sector that injects billions of dollars into the regions, and represents up to 6 percent of our GDP - it is one that critically needs support in order to thrive in our post-COVID world. 

McCormack said a healthy tertiary sector was vital in the overall economic recovery of New Zealand. 

"We need education, training, skills and development... all sorts of opportunities to get through that transition. 

"And universities, institutes of technology, polytechnics and the like are going to be crucial in that. So we need all our universities to be on full-strength when we come out of it. 

"We are an important sector, not just now, but for the recovery." 

Tertiary Education Union's Sandra Grey said in order for the sector to continue to thrive in a post-COVID world, it was important to look at a different funding model. 

"[The Government] needs to look at the real cost and recognise [the tertiary sector] is a crucial part of recovery from this moment in time when our economy and our society has been affected by COVID."