Universities are expecting a surge in demand for places from the newly unemployed and those seeking to continue their studies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The federal government is yet to formally announce how it plans to respond to the anticipated demand spike. It is believed to be considering funding for short courses that would provide retraining opportunities in areas of increased demand caused by the pandemic.
The courses, which could include areas such as community health and data analytics, would comprise elements of undergraduate and postgraduate coursework and run for about six months.
"For the here and now it makes sense for there to be some new initiative that provides commonwealth funding for short courses to assist those who are unemployed to retrain, particularly in areas where there has been a surge in demand associated with COVID-19 and the community's ability to cope with that," University of Canberra vice-president of university relations and strategy Belinda Robinson said.
In addition to providing additional support to current students whose studies have been disrupted, universities are also likely to be dealing with a surge in demand for new undergraduate places.
Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said last week this scenario may require a reassessment of existing funding rules that emphasise graduate employment outcomes.
"Obviously, when you're faced with a pandemic, the likes of which we're facing now, there is a need to reassess some of the regulatory requirements that you have in place," he said.
The last time Australian universities experienced a significant surge in demand for undergraduate places was during the recession of the 1990s.
The decline in international students due to COVID-19 restrictions - which is estimated will cost Australian universities between $3 and $4.5 billion this year - will increase the capacity of universities to cater for domestic demand.
Ms Robinson, the former chief executive of Universities Australia, said the higher education sector would play a critical role in the recovery of the wider economy once the pandemic passed.
"Universities generally are the centerpiece of productivity and development. It would be very wise as a community to make sure we utilise our universities and provide places for people so that we can rebound really positively and strongly," she said.
University of Newcastle vice chancellor Alex Zelinsky described the pandemic as a short to medium term "game changer" for higher education.
"In the context of a very different employment market, people, especially school leavers, will think differently about pursuing qualifications. This will be particularly relevant in our regions where unemployment is a bigger challenge than in the cities," he said.
He also agreed demand for higher education would increase while the economy recovered.
"Our sector will need to work with government to consider how we adapt in a way that supports the recovery effort and the country's long-term prosperity. And there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution," he said.
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