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Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson answers your questions

From reopening campuses for face-to-face learning to managing the return of international students, amid an expected $3 billion to $4.6 billion decline in revenue, Australia’s universities have some big challenges ahead as they emerge from the COVID-19 lockdown.

Universities Australia has predicted about 21,000 jobs could be lost in the sector and has already put in place a range of cost-saving measures, but is now looking for additional government support.

Australian universities had moved to online learning to comply with COVID-19 guidelines around physical distancing.

Following the release of the Federal Government’s three-stage plan to restart the Australian economy, Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said universities were now carefully considering how best move forward.

She welcomed the inclusion of face-to-face teaching in all three stages of the plan.

“Universities have been working closely with government and health authorities around a carefully staged return to campus,” she said. “Small classes, in areas very difficult to teach online like labs, are likely to be an early focus.”

She acknowledged that students and staff were eager to restart face-to-face learning, but a cautious and gradual approach would be taken with the safety as the top priority.

“The detailed arrangements will differ from university to university, and from state to state, but all will adhere meticulously to guidance from the medical authorities and governments,” Ms Jackson said.

She also acknowledged the fact that step three of the plan referenced international student travel.

“We welcome the inclusion of international student travel down the track, in step three,” she said. “We are keen to welcome all our students, from home and abroad, back to face-to-face teaching, but when it is safe to do so.”

Ms Jackson was online today to answer your questions. Here’s what she had to say:

Q. Do you think it is likely that some universities will close because they can no longer afford to operate, especially if international borders remain closed beyond next year? If that happens, what will happen to the students?

A. Unis are certainly facing a big challenge. We’ve estimated the decline in revenue to be between $3 billion and $4.6 billion in this year alone. That’s tough for any sector to absorb. Unis have already put in place a range of cost saving measures. But these won’t nearly be enough, which is why we’ve been discussing with government the need for support. We’re also planning for a possible return of international students, but only when it’s safe and appropriate to welcome them back.

Q. Do you think it is safe for universities to reopen and allow international students to return from overseas? How will accommodation facilities accommodate them and keep everyone safe?

A. Universities never completely closed. Instead, we moved learning online. You will see life on campus gradually return soon. Once that’s happened, we’ll work with government to come up with a really robust plan for the safe return of overseas students.

Q. When do you think universities will return to normal?

A. Students across the country have done an incredible job adjusting to a new life learning online. But just like their lecturers and tutors, everyone wants to get back to the classroom. Health and welfare has got to come first. Unis will start with small classes in areas like lab work that are difficult to teach online and unis will be sticking to the required social distancing and safe delivery requirements. Tutorials and small group learning will come next, and larger lectures after.

Q. How will universities be able to reintroduce international students to campuses safely, knowing that the bulk of infections came from overseas?

A. We’ve been discussing with health authorities and government how this could work. Any return will of course be run strictly in line with health advice and would be conducted carefully and gradually with appropriate quarantine arrangements.

Q. We have seen whole schools shut down this week when there is just one case of coronavirus. How will universities manage if the same thing happens and will whole campuses have to close?

A. Any return of students to campus will of course be run strictly in line with health advice and would be conducted with the utmost caution. Every university will have rules and procedures in place to deal with new cases just like the rest of the community. In the past two or three months, universities have had to shift teaching online and scale back other on campus activities. Moving back from this will be a careful and gradual process.

Q. Online learning has been a huge challenge for me – will there be scope to appeal my results if they are affected? I generally run on results around the credit score but this time I am only getting passes so far. I am in a business course.

A. All universities are taking the impact of the virus into consideration this year and I recommend you speak to your university about it. They understand the move to online has been tough. It will be up to them to decide how they make allowances during this time. Good luck for the rest of the year.

Q. I work as a university tutor and am really worried about my job. How many jobs are you predicting will be lost in the sector and how long do you think it will take to recover? I moved here from the UK and have been here for more than 10 years. I am thinking I might have to go back to the UK.

A. Unfortunately, we’re predicting around 21,000 jobs are at risk due to the estimated $3 billion to $4.6 billion decline in revenue to universities.

Q. The Prime Minister commented in his address at the National Press Club yesterday that 80 per cent of international students are already in the country and he therefore didn’t believe a lack of international student revenue was an issue for universities. However other statistics from the Department of Education states that there were only 30 international student enrolments in April compared to over 40,000 last year. Why is there a discrepancy between the PMs stats and those from the Department?

A. Around 80 per cent of international students due to study in Semester One are in indeed in the country. However, we usually see around 45 per cent of new or first year international students start their studies in the second half of the year – basically from July onwards. So that means an extra 80,000 overseas students can’t get here to start mid-year.

[Source From: NEWS.COM.AU,