Cut deep, cut early: Covid’s toll on Australian casuals revealed

Belated data show that inexperienced, untenured and non-academic staff shouldered the lion’s share of job losses

February 13, 2022
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Young and casual staff bore the brunt of the Covid-19 hammer blow on Australia’s higher education workforce, new data confirm.

About twice as many casuals lost their jobs as permanent and fixed-term staff combined, the figures suggest, while fixed-termers succumbed at twice the rate of their tenured colleagues. Casual staffing levels declined by almost a fifth over the first nine months of the crisis.

The federal education department statistics provide a snapshot of university staff numbers at the end of March 2021. For casuals, departmental figures are a year older and only available on a full-time equivalent (FTE) basis.

Australian National University (ANU) policy expert Andrew Norton said that while it was impossible to glean reliable headcounts of casual staff from the FTE figures, the data suggested that a net 17,500 of them may have disappeared in 2020. This compared with a loss of 9,050 permanent and fixed-term positions over the 12 months to March 2021.

The combined tally is higher than representative group University Australia’s estimate of 17,300 job losses in 2020, but significantly lower than thinktank The Australia Institute’s calculation that 35,000 university positions were lost over the year from May 2020. 

Some groups think the toll could have been even higher, with a University of Melbourne study estimating that between 20,000 and 36,000 casuals were displaced in 2020.

Professor Norton said it was likely that many casuals had disappeared in the first few months of the epidemic. Many had not been “sacked”, but rather denied new work offers after their existing engagements wound up.

He said that much of the job-shedding was probably unnecessary, with students from China proving more willing than expected to study online. And the federal government eventually provided extra support, most notably an additional A$1 billion (£530 million) of research funding in its October 2020 budget.

But vice-chancellors could not be blamed for taking precipitate action, Professor Norton said. “They had to act on a credible scenario, which – in the middle of 2020 – was that they were in deep financial trouble. It was only later they realised it wasn’t quite as bad.”

He said that if the government’s assistance package had materialised earlier, “premature” job losses may have been averted.

The new data suggest that higher education staff in their twenties were at least twice as likely as their older colleagues to lose work in 2020, with their numbers plummeting by about 18 per cent. Staff aged 60 and older also proved vulnerable, declining by 11 per cent.

Professor Norton said professional staff had incurred about three-quarters of the job losses among permanent and fixed-term staff. Lecturers proved more expendable than more senior academics, with their ranks depleted by about 1,000 nationally.

He said that UNSW Sydney, Monash, RMIT and the University of Technology Sydney had sustained the biggest hits to their workforces, each surrendering more than 500 permanent and fixed-term positions. ANU, La Trobe and Griffith universities followed with losses of at least 400 each.

Professor Norton said current staffing levels at most universities were probably sustainable. But more financial pressures remained possible, with the extra research money allocated and international student flows still muted.

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