Higher education crisis deepens with further staffing & budget cuts

Australia is expected to be one of the hardest-hit countries in the world by the impact of the global pandemic with Universities Australia predicting 21,000 jobs cut and the loss of 30% in income from the sector over the next four years.

“We have tens of thousands of staff across universities… who are going to find their employment in question”

Wage freezes, pay cuts, compulsory unpaid leave and restructuring and rationalisation of faculties are being used to try and limit the losses.

However, the top 10 ranked Australian universities alone have already axed thousands of full-time, casual and contract positions, with more to come in 2021 and announced an immediate shortfall of over a billion dollars.

The pain is also being felt across the 30 other universities, with almost all announcing significant measures in response to the crisis.

Among the latest announcements are more than 200 jobs to be eliminated at Western Sydney University, up to 200 at Perth’s Murdoch University and hundreds at Perth’s Curtin University.

Additionally, the University of Queensland is looking to cut more than 50% of its remaining staff at the Institute for Continuing and TESOL Education, after recently letting go of almost all its casual staff earlier in the year.

UA chief executive, Catriona Jackson, said the best-case scenario is that international students are able to return for the first semester of 2021. Even then, she said, an estimated AUD$16 billion in university revenues will be at risk over the next four years.

The National Tertiary Education Union said a combination of overreliance on full fee-paying international students and universities being left out of the government’s pandemic support package has exacerbated an already catastrophic situation.

NTEU’s Matthew McGowan said the exclusion from the government’s pandemic support package came as a shock to the sector, which supplies the country’s fourth-largest export, international education.

This, coupled with the proposed changes to the federal funding base for the sector which would see less funding for domestic students, puts the sector in a very difficult position.

However, it’s not just education delivery that is going to suffer McGowan has warned.

“The higher education sector both for research and provision of education and support to the community provides an enormous array of mechanisms to support the economic growth of the country,” he said.

“With the sector being challenged in the way it is at the moment, and what can only be described as a hostile relationship with the federal government, it is not in anyone’s interest in and certainly not in the country’s interest.”

And, he continued, research is yet to feel the full effect of the funding cuts.

“It needs a substantial investment in funding. The universities provide the largest proportion of the country’s research capacity and infrastructure and we provide education to the Australian community – now everything that’s going on at the moment is putting pressure on that,” he said.

“We have tens of thousands of staff across universities who are on fixed-term contracts on research funding who are going to find their employment in question in the very near future because those contracts will come to an end and the funding isn’t there to support their work. So, there’s a major crisis coming for the sector.”

These fears are shared by UA with Jackson predicting thousands more job losses in the research sector

“We can’t pretend Covid-19 won’t have a big impact on university revenues,” she said.

“Not only does that money pay for staff, it also pays for much of the research and innovation that keeps Australia internationally competitive. Independent research estimates that between $3.3bn and $3.5 bn of university R&D activity could be at risk as a result of the impact of Covid-19, with the loss of an estimated 7,000 research jobs.

“We are conducting constructive discussions with the government on research sustainability in the short, medium and long-term. I am hopeful about the results,” Jackson added.

Meanwhile, NTEU said its immediate focus will continue to be on doing whatever they can to protect jobs.

“We can’t pretend Covid-19 won’t have a big impact on university revenues”

“We will take whatever steps we feel necessary to try and protect people’s employment. That includes seeking to negotiate specific agreements with universities that provide protection for jobs in exchange for some relief for the institution’s budgets,” said McGowan.

“We’re also campaigning and working hard to defeat the government’s bill and we are trying to get the federal government to understand that it needs to put financial support into the sector so everything we are focussed on at the moment is trying to protect people’s employment and try and protect staff from what is going to be a traumatic Christmas.”

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