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Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson. Picture: NCA Newswire/Nikki Short

Will the Accord have a ‘wealth tax’?

Labor’s Universities Accord ­review of higher education is ­expected to back a financial levy on universities based on their broader levels of revenue, a move designed to penalise the institutions with large numbers of international students without explicitly saying so.

The levy, which is effectively a redistributive tax within the university sector, would help fund Education Minister Jason Clare’s plan to boost the numbers of less-privileged students in higher education, including those from low socio-economic status backgrounds and from ­regional and remote areas.

The Universities Accord ­interim report last June urged the government to consider a levy on international students, with the revenue raised used to pay for priorities across the ­higher education sector.

But following warnings from the international education ­industry that a tax on inter­national student fees would be seen as ­targeting international students and turn them away from ­Australia, a more general levy based on other revenue indicators is seen as a better option – ­although the new measure, while designed differently, is still expected to hit the universities, mainly in the Group of Eight, that earn big sums from overseas students.

Latest figures show that, in 2022, the University of Sydney earned $1.4bn from inter­national student fees, Monash University earned $906m, the University of Melbourne earned $877m, the University of NSW $753m, and the University of Queensland $614m.

Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said that the Go8 universities remained “opposed to any revenue-raising measure that effectively comes on the back of international ­students”.

“Any measure which taxes our general revenue is effectively a backdoor tax on international students. It is unfair, not in the ­national interest and poor public policy.

“It also undermines our hard-won and enduring successes in international education and risks damaging our global reputation,” Ms Thomson said.

“It ignores the fact that this is a quick-fix solution to what is a fundamentally structural issue and that is how do we, as a nation, fund our … research effort.”

She said the Go8 universities invested $7.7bn annually into research and received only $2.8bn from governments.

The Universities Accord final report, produced by an expert panel chaired by former NSW chief scientist Mary O’Kane, is expected to be released by Mr Clare in advance of the Universities Australia annual conference next week in Canberra.

However, until the government releases its response to the report – which will not come immediately – it won’t be clear which accord recommendations it will accept.

The less-wealthy universities, which stand to benefit from the redistributive levy, are also suffering from the federal government’s deliberate slowdown in processing of international student visas as it works to reduce Australia’s net migration levels.

Two weeks ago, 16 universities, mainly those designated by the Home Affairs Department as having higher visa risk levels, wrote to Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil that they stood to lose $310m in international student fees this year unless the department rapidly cleared the backlog of unprocessed student visas.

Last Friday, Ms O’Neil had an online meeting with most of the vice-chancellors who signed the letter but universities say the situation is little improved.

Charles Sturt University said on Tuesday it was still waiting for visas to be processed for half of its new cohort of international students.

James Cook University vice-chancellor Simon Biggs said the government had not yet changed the student visa settings.

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