Pandemic job losses ‘accelerating’ in Australia

Permanent rather than casual staff now being targeted, report suggests, but expert queries data underpinning the analysis

September 13, 2021
Unemployed woman searching for job in local newspaper
Source: iStock

Covid-induced job losses in Australian universities have doubled since last year, a study suggests, with tenured rather than casual staff now in the firing line.

An analysis of Australian Bureau of Statistics data has found that layoffs in tertiary education have dwarfed those in most industries, with around 40,000 positions lost in the 12 months to May – 90 per cent of them full-time – and some 35,000 of them from universities.

“This trend looks likely to continue…as international enrolments continue to plunge and the commonwealth government refuses to make funding commitments to support universities through the crisis,” says the report, which was commissioned by the National Tertiary Education Union and conducted by the Centre for Future Work at Canberra thinktank The Australia Institute.

Early this year, Universities Australia estimated that at least 17,300 permanent, casual and fixed-term staff had lost jobs in 2020. Some estimates put the losses much higher, with one analysis concluding that up to 36,000 casual staff had disappeared by November.

There is no official headcount of university casuals in Australia, and tallies of tenured and contracted staff vary significantly depending on data source. ABS figures include employment in vocational and private colleges, further clouding the picture.

The new study says casuals experienced most cuts in the pandemic’s early stages. “In 2021, however, permanent staff are facing the main job losses. Having had time to adjust staff plans…university administrations began to attack permanent positions with a vengeance. By the May quarter, as universities increased their casual hiring, permanent jobs represented all of the net job loss compared to year-earlier levels.”

This means the pandemic has increased rather than reduced casualisation in Australian universities, the report says. “The scourge of casualisation in Australian universities will clearly get worse in coming years.”

Australian National University policy expert Andrew Norton agreed that the focus of university job shedding had probably switched from casual to permanent staff but queried whether the losses had been as high as the report suggested.

Professor Norton said the estimate, based on a monthly ABS labour force survey of 50,000 people, contradicted ABS payroll data suggesting that the number of tertiary education jobs had risen. He said the 2020 labour force survey may have included a disproportionate sample of academics, consequently overestimating the size of the sector’s workforce that year.

Professor Norton said ABS data also show that termination payments for education and training workers had peaked in late 2020 – at almost 2.5 per cent of payroll, about five times the usual level – and declined somewhat in the first quarter of 2021.

Meanwhile, an analysis by university funding expert Mark Warburton has concluded that the federal government did not set aside extra money to bankroll a promise of 27,000 extra domestic university places this year under the 2020 Job-ready Graduates reforms.

In a report published by the University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education, Mr Warburton says the government made inadequate provision for “grandfathered” students who would not be saddled with fee increases for courses they had already started.

He says the government is subsidising 39,000 fewer places than it promised this year, and will still be around 14,000 places short by 2024. Canberra would need to spend some A$1.1 billion (£585 million) more to “honour the claims” made during JRG negotiations, the paper says.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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