COVID hurts but ACU fares better than most
COVID-19 has confronted all Australians with a sense of the precariousness of life, the economy and our security. At the same time, we have discovered anew the necessity and vitality of the communities that surround us. Australian universities, including ACU, have not been immune to the questions and the sense of the importance of community that has flowed from this experience.
Australian universities have been hit by this pandemic: some who have significant numbers of international students (up to 50% in some instances) have found their entire ‘business’ model gone. For these, COVID-19 has meant large scale redundancies, cancellation of important research, limits on capital investment and major restructures. Some will look very different into the future – just how different remains to be seen.
While ACU has been tested in 2020, we have fared better than most: of ACU’s total national enrolment, around 14% are international students – though these are not spread evenly across the University’s campuses or academic programs and many were already in Australia prior to the border closures. In that regard, our financial situation is not as dire as some in the sector. In terms of enrolments our concerns are more future directed: what will international and domestic admissions be like in 2021, 2022 and 2023? The challenges facing universities are not just for this year but will extend for the foreseeable future.
That is not to suggest that ACU has not experienced a financial impact – we have also used cash reserves, slowed the pace of future capital works and debt repayment, limited new appointments and re-evaluated others, and altered the methods of delivery of classes. Some decisions are being made this year, others will remain for the future.
ACU has a heavy concentration in the human services degrees – nursing, other health sciences, social work, psychology, pre-service teaching. Each of these fields has a high degree of practical placement; some of those were delayed or not possible during the earlier part of the close downs – though in the case of Canberra we have remedied this situation for all students expected to graduate this year.
These programs also require face-to-face classes to a large extent. Most classes at the Signadou Campus in Semester 2 have been offered in ‘mixed-mode’ – a combination of online and face-to-face – with most students back on campus for significant portions of the week and very glad to be so! The kinds of people who train for the health, education and welfare professions value human interaction and deep relationships.
ACU’s mission: transforming the lives of our students and through them the communities they serve; to live ‘truth in love’ provides a particular poignancy to our experience of 2020. Due to our mission, we prioritised re-opening; we operated all our student support services through remote means; we held weekly ‘Zoom’ morning teas for staff; we supplied clear and regular messages to students and staff about how we were operating and where people could turn for support. Campus Ministry moved to online prayer and reflection sessions. Even as we have returned to a greater sense of business as usual, many of the innovative practices have continued to ensure all students have access to the services they need.
Applications for university entry in 2021 are currently open and there is a massive increase in the number of applicants – driven in part, it is said, by the recession. At the same time, there is really an effective cap on the number of places universities can offer to Australian students – the Commonwealth is proposing to fund an extra 35 000 places in universities over the next three years. At this point it seems that many who are seeking tertiary study in 2021 will not find a place. Some are cynically suggesting that this due to short-term lack.
- Patrick McArdle is the Campus Dean (Canberra), Australian Catholic University (ACU)