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“Taming the black elephant”: assessing and managing the impacts of COVID-19 on public universities in Australia

Garry D. Carnegie (Department of Accounting, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia)
Ann Martin-Sardesai (College of Business, School of Business and Law, CQ University, Sydney, Australia)
Lisa Marini (Macquarie Business School, Macquarie University, North Ryde, Australia)
James Guthrie AM (Macquarie Business School, Macquarie University, North Ryde, Australia)

Meditari Accountancy Research

ISSN: 2049-372X

Article publication date: 14 October 2021

Issue publication date: 23 November 2022




The Australian higher education sector faces severe risks from the consequences of COVID-19. This paper aims to explore these risks, their immediate impacts and the likely future impacts. The authors specifically focus on the institutional financial and social risks arising from the global pandemic.


The authors collect data using the 2019 annual reports of the 37 Australian public universities and relevant media contributions. The findings of identified sector change are interpreted through Laughlin’s organisational change diagnosis.


The sector confronts significant financial and social risks because of its over-reliance on income from fee-paying onshore overseas students resulting in universities primarily undertaking morphostatic changes. These risks include job losses, changing employment conditions, mental health issues for students, scholars, other staff, including casual staff, online learning shortfalls and the student expectations of their university experience. The study reveals how many of these risks are the inevitable consequence of the “accountingisation” of Australian public universities.

Practical implications

Despite material exposure, the universities provide only limited disclosure of the extent of the risks associated with increasing dependence on overseas student fees to 31 December 2019. The analysis highlights fake accountability and distorted transparency to users of audited financial statements – a major limitation of university annual reports.


Research on the Australian higher education sector has mainly focussed on the impact of policies and changes. The public disclosure of critical risks taken by these universities are now addressed.



Carnegie, G.D., Martin-Sardesai, A., Marini, L. and Guthrie AM, J. (2022), "“Taming the black elephant”: assessing and managing the impacts of COVID-19 on public universities in Australia", Meditari Accountancy Research, Vol. 30 No. 6, pp. 1783-1808.



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