New wave of redundancies sweeps Australian universities

Hundreds of roles at risk as fresh wave of coronavirus restrictions sweeps across country

July 18, 2021
Geelong, Victoria - December 11 2018 The ‘As Good As New’ secondhand dealer on Ryrie Street. The store has a ‘closing down’ sign on the front.
Source: iStock

Australian university staff are bracing for a fresh round of job and course cuts as the latest wave of coronavirus outbreaks engulfs their country.

La Trobe University is consulting staff on a restructure and “course rationalisation” that would displace about 230 people and erase some 290 unfilled jobs. While some 300 new roles are also envisaged, the plan would reduce overall staffing levels by the equivalent of 200 full-time positions.

At the University of Adelaide, up to 130 full-time equivalent professional staff and an undetermined number of academics could go as part of a restructure that would merge five faculties into three and jettison “underperforming” courses.

The University of Western Australia (UWA) proposes abolishing a net 16 academic positions in the School of Social Sciences, and removing research rights from another seven, as an initial part of a A$40 million (£21 million) institution-wide cost-cutting programme that the academic union estimates would leave 300 to 400 people jobless.

Anthropology and sociology would be completely phased out along with the master’s degree in urban and regional planning, while courses in international relations, Asian studies and other areas would be pared back.

The University of Tasmania (UTas) also proposes shedding up to five senior academics from its Australian Maritime College, while Macquarie University told 34 academics in June that they were no longer needed.

Redundancy proposals have re-emerged as rampant coronavirus caseloads trap about 40 per cent of Australians at home. Victoria has entered its fifth lockdown while Sydneysiders are housebound until at least the end of July and temporary restrictions have been imposed elsewhere, in a stark reminder that the Covid crisis is far from over.

Universities say that they must cut staff costs now to avoid financial catastrophe. La Trobe expects to earn A$165 million less this year than in 2019, largely because of reduced international enrolments. Adelaide predicts shortfalls of A$22 million next year and A$47 million in 2023, while UWA says its fiscal “problem” dates from well before the pandemic.

Union representatives have slammed the “misguided” job-cut proposals as poor reward for the “dedication and huge sacrifice” of staff who maintained course delivery last year, while thousands of their colleagues were shown the door.

Staff particularly question the need for redundancies at institutions like Adelaide and UWA, which last year recorded surpluses of A$41 million and A$55 million respectively. University leaders say such figures include one-off donations and research grants that mask underlying financial weaknesses.

Australian National University policy expert Andrew Norton said that while vice-chancellors had been accused of cutting staff numbers prematurely, they had little choice. The “pipeline effect” of the lack of fresh international enrolments meant that the most acute losses would strike in coming years. “It makes sense to bring your workforce down to your long-term income, even if it’s okay in year one,” he said.

Professor Norton said that the Job-ready Graduates reforms had also removed opportunities for cross-subsidisation, such that universities could no longer support low-enrolment subjects. “The old swings and roundabouts system, where you make money on some courses and lose it on others – that’s broken,” he said. “Every course has to pay its own way.”

La Trobe, UWA and UTas were among the few signatories to last year’s Jobs Protection Framework, a pact with the union to minimise job losses. The agreement expired on 30 June.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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