Pandemic ‘cost Australian universities more than 17,000 staff’

Universities and government dispute magnitude of sector’s losses as it braces for worse in 2021

February 2, 2021
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The pandemic deprived Australia’s higher education institutions of at least 17,300 staff last year and waylaid some A$1.8 billion (£1 billion) of earnings compared to 2019, representative body Universities Australia (UA) says.

UA’s survey of its 39 members suggests Covid has exerted a far greater toll on university employment in Australia than in the UK, where one report indicated that 104 universities reported redundancies totalling around 3,000 through the first seven months of the outbreak.

UA chief executive Catriona Jackson said that compared to projected 2020 revenue, the Australian sector had taken a 4.9 per cent, or A$3 billion, hit. This year would be “even more challenging” with universities facing a further A$200 million cut, putting earnings 5.5 per cent below the 2019 income figure.

“We always said universities would face a multi-year hit to their revenues. The cumulative impact [will] be felt…for years to come. No sector can absorb revenue declines this large without staff losses.”

The 17,300 figure – a headcount covering permanent employees, casuals and staff on fixed-term contracts who were not rehired – is a likely underestimate. Teresa Tjia, former registrar at Victoria University and an honorary fellow with the University of Melbourne’s LH Martin Institute, has estimated that up to 36,000 casually employed university staff lost their jobs in 2020 – around one-quarter of the 146,000-strong casual workforce.

Ms Jackson predicted further erosion of employment this year. “The loss of any of those staff is personally devastating [and] bad for the university community and Australia’s knowledge reservoir,” she said.

The reported revenue losses accord with last year’s estimates. In April, UA predicted that the sector faced reduced earnings of between A$3 billion and A$4.6 billion in 2020.

However, education minister Alan Tudge has estimated losses considerably lower than 4.9 per cent. He said international enrolments at public universities had declined by only about 5 per cent, representing a revenue loss of about 1.25 per cent in a sector that obtained around one-quarter of its income from international students.

“That may differ from university to university, but it’s not a crisis if it’s only down 1.25 per cent,” he told Sky News.

But Innovative Research Universities (IRU) said its members had suffered revenue cuts of 10 to 15 per cent on the back of a 23 per cent plunge in new international students. In a pre-budget submission, the group says the picture for 2021 was “far worse” with members expecting 30 to 50 per cent fewer overseas students in first semester than in the equivalent period of 2019.

Continuing students were prepared to complete their studies online but “they are not being replaced by as many new commencing students”, the submission says. “The impact is greater for those considering [study] for the first time.

“Universities would normally see another 80,000 higher education students enter Australia in the middle of the year, but in 2020 second semester came and went without new arrivals and fewer students commencing online.”

The IRU wants the government to permit “safe and workable quarantine” arrangements so that international students can enter Australia. “The other major hubs for international education…are open to student travel,” it says.

“The low risk of Covid-19 may appear to favour Australia, but…for many students there is no greater risk in the US or UK than in their home country.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Some predictions state that the Australian borders might remain closed until 2022, meaning that international students wouldn’t be able to return to their current institution or enroll to study abroad (in-person). The current percentage of revenue loss has cost the institutions between 11 and 24% of their workforce. Once international students are allowed to return, do you think the intuitions will return to normal (i.e., a similar number on staff as before), or will the loss of revenue mean the universities will need to operate with a smaller staff? Some feel that Australia might lose its status as a top spot for international education due to the delay.


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