AUSTRALIAN universities are facing a 10 per cent staff cut with a possible loss of 8,000 jobs.
Federal government budget cuts and a hefty pay rise for academics and general staff have already led to thousands of retrenchments.
The vice chancellor of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, David Beanland, said that the next two years would be very difficult because of the federal government's decision to reduce spending on higher education. "I anticipate that staff cuts will plateau by 1999, as long as there are no further reductions in Commonwealth (central government) funding," he added.
He was commenting on the signing of an enterprise bargaining agreement between the RMIT and unions under which staff will receive an 11.5 per cent salary rise spread over the next two years.
But Professor Beanland estimated the cost at Aus$22 million (Pounds 8.8 million) a year and said the university would offer its employees voluntary redundancy packages. At least 140 were expected to leave in 1998. He said most universities would be forced to shed 10 per cent of staff as a result of the budget cuts and salary increases.
As the 1997 academic year in Australia came to a close, all but three of the 37 public universities had reached agreement with the unions on pay rises. Those remaining are expected to settle negotiations early in the new year.
The National Tertiary Education Union has claimed an overwhelming victory in its pay dispute with vice chancellors. The union had called for a 15 per cent rise and welcomed the fact that most institutions ended up offering 11 to12 per cent.
But the cost to both university budgets and jobs has been high. Even the union admits that academics will face larger classes, longer hours and fewer resources.
In many universities entire departments have been closed as faculty deans struggle to cope with the reduction in their annual budget allocations.
At La Trobe University in Melbourne the music department was unexpectedly shut in December despite receiving dozens of applications from students - many of whom turned up for auditions on the day closure was announced.
Up to a dozen academics in the department face forced redundancy. They are expected to join the 240 other staff who have accepted voluntary departure packages over the past 12 months.
The NTEU described the decision to shut the department as a "knee-jerk reaction".
Monash, Australia's largest university, has also indicated that its science faculty will have to accept an 8 per cent budget cut. The union said this would lead to at least 50 redundancies, on top of the 50 job losses that had already occurred in 1997.
Staff were angry at a memorandum from vice chancellor David Robinson in which he described a meeting of the faculty as "the usual mixture of good sense, perception, enthusiasm, whingeing and lunacy that one expects from any group of university colleagues anywhere in the world".