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In the media: University researchers eager for call-up to fight virus

Richard Ferguson – The Australian – 18 March 2020

Australia’s top universities are ­offering Scott Morrison their best researchers to fight the corona­virus, as the wider sector pushes for more money and cuts to red tape after being devastated by campus shutdowns and the loss of international students.

The Group of Eight universities’ chief financial and operating officers met via videoconference on Tuesday to assess the damage done to the sector by the pandemic. Campuses across the country have closed to ensure classes can shift online in the event of a coronavirus shutdown and universities have been bleeding revenue due to travel bans affecting international students.

The Go8 universities wrote to the Prime Minister, Education Minister Dan Tehan and Health Minister Greg Hunt on Sunday to say students and staff are on-call to help fight the disease “for the good of the nation”.

“We want to stress that, and as the eight universities which ­deliver you more than half of Australia’s medical and science graduates, we have high-quality medical, nursing and pathology students that are a potential ­national resource in alleviating any system stress in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic,” the letter reads.

“Some states have already sought to access this potential workforce, and we welcome the opportunity to work with them and you to leverage this important resource based on agreed and fair principles that ensure the protection and rights of the students themselves.

“Any Go8 academic you wish to seek assistance or advice from is also there for you. Please use our world-leading expertise; it is there for the good of the nation.”

The Go8 universities have also assured Mr Morrison they are not planning a self-imposed shutdown of all campus activity to ensure coronavirus research can continue. “It would of course be possible to operate with a core skeleton staff but this could only occur if ­directed by the government. Again, should this occur, we would see it as incumbent upon government to advise when this temporary measure can be relaxed,” the letter reads.

Universities lost out in the government’s $17.6bn stimulus package despite being one of the worst-hit sectors. Behind the scenes, the tertiary education sector is ramping up its campaign to be included in ­additional fiscal measures.

Universities Australia deputy chief executive Anne-Marie Lansdown said her organisation — which represents all universities — wanted regulations lifted and was working with government ­departments to see what other forms of assistance could be given.

“We are continuing to talk to government about how best to ­relieve the growing financial pressure on the higher education sector,” she told The Australian.

“There will be serious budgetary repercussions for universities and their communities as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and universities are already implementing a range of measures to deal with the impact. Universities are discussing with government departments and agencies ­approaches that could be adopted to provide assurance and certainty to the sector, as well as alleviating the administrative and regulatory burden on universities.”