Australian job losses ‘not driven by pandemic necessity’

Extent of staffing overhauls bore little relationship to Covid’s financial carnage, says report

May 9, 2022
Cuts
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Australian universities embraced Covid as an opportunity to wield the axe, a new paper suggests, with the depth of staff losses bearing little relationship to the pandemic’s financial carnage.

An analysis of federal education department employment and enrolment data has found that some of the biggest cuts occurred at institutions where the pandemic’s impact had been small.

Three universities reduced their staffing levels by between 10 and 15 per cent in 2020, despite experiencing net financial declines of less than 4 per cent, while seven institutions shed staff even though they had managed to strengthen their financial positions.  

The analyst, former University of Melbourne deputy vice-chancellor Frank Larkins, writes that some universities used “the uncertain and unpredictable environment” as an opportunity to undertake “academic and administrative structural reforms” that were “not primarily directly driven” by financial necessity.

“Faculties and departments have been restructured, subject offerings reduced and other curriculum reforms implemented, leading to very significant staff reductions in some universities.”

The report, published by the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, is likely to rekindle debate over whether universities cut unnecessarily deeply during the first fraught year of the crisis.

Institutional accounts released so far this year show that many institutions’ income streams have rebounded to record levels, while their expenses have shrunk – largely thanks to reduced salary bills.

Critics believe universities used coronavirus as cover to jettison unfancied disciplines and make other long-desired changes. Others say executives had no idea that revenue streams would prove resilient and were forced to restructure to keep their institutions viable.

Chinese students’ unexpected willingness to study remotely took university administrators by surprise, as did an extra A$1 billion (£575 million) of research funding announced in the October 2020 federal budget.

But Professor Larkins maintains that many universities had “a strong financial buffer” following a decade of solid growth. He says the “net financial decrease” of 4.5 per cent or A$1.7 billion, based on changes to both income and expenditure, was “not catastrophic for the higher education sector as a whole”.

He highlights universities whose staff losses significantly exceeded their financial losses, proportionally speaking. They included Charles Darwin, Macquarie, New England, Sunshine Coast, UNSW Sydney and the three Adelaide-based universities.

On the other side of the ledger, some universities’ staffing reductions were mere fractions of the financial damage. They included the Australian National University, Curtin, Federation, Newcastle, RMIT and Tasmania.

Professor Larkins’ analysis found that university staffing levels declined by about 11,100 or 8 per cent in 2020, on a full-time equivalent basis. He estimated the headcount losses at close to 17,000.

Roughly two in five job losses occurred in New South Wales, where universities lost 11 per cent of their staff.

Sector-wide, the cuts claimed around 30 per cent of casual employees compared to just 3 per cent of permanent and contracted staff.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

I wonder how many were VS as many in the UK were, with UK Universities cock-a-hoop to get rid of older staff particularly as they were the holders of the 'corporate memory' was the same true in Aus?

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