The impact of COVID-19 will result in the transformation of Australian higher education as it responds to the high levels of uncertainty, funding shortfalls and new work practices.  What is likely is that Australian universities will have to do more with less.

Restructures, redundancies and other initiatives designed to reduce staffing costs have been a regular feature of university life over recent years with varying degrees of long-term success in maintaining costs and achieving the desired benefits. In reviewing the publicly available data for almost half of Australia’s public universities, it appears that while professional staff reductions and short term cost savings may have been achieved, they have not been sustained. Reductions in staff numbers are quickly followed by increases to levels sometimes higher than the original numbers.

We examined the expenditure between 2014 and 2019 of seven universities which provided redundancy expenditure data in their annual reports.  In that period, the universities spent $312.5m on redundancy or voluntary separation payouts of which $185.3m was spent on severance packages for professional staff. Associated with each redundancy and change program are financial and opportunity costs including cost of external consultancy services, impact on staff morale and engagement, and loss of expertise, corporate knowledge and business continuity.

What can be done to achieve lasting change?  We suggest ten approaches to enable universities to optimise the long term outcome, to engage with staff, and minimise risks associated with redundancy programmes and professional staff losses.

workforce planning and benefits realisation: strategic, considered and detailed professional staff workforce planning with measurable outcomes which are regularly monitored will support an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic and government policy changes

data and evidence-based decision making: data on service delivery costs and returns should be collected and used with workforce planning, to better target areas for change and ensure that the costs of redundancy can be balanced by the benefits of cost savings in both short and long terms

recognise the contribution of the professional staff workforce– recruit staff on merit against current and future skills requirements and actively plan and support the development of skills and professional expertise

transparency and change management: implement transparent robust mechanisms which engage staff.

salary structure: explore whether the current classification structure for professional staff which reflects the world of work in the early 1990s sufficiently recognises universities’ current requirements

flexible structures:– implement contemporary flat management structures rather than many layers and complexities in staff arrangements

service delivery partnerships: consider an increased mix of university staff and external partners/outsource

collaborations: implement shared services across the sector and cross-institutions where institutional collaboration will yield effective outcomes.

streamlining administrative processes: ensure continued investment in the implementation of improved processes and systems to align with staff reductions

benefitting from changes in work practices post COVID-19potential reduced capital and operating costs from changes in work practices (for example, working from home).

Incorporating past learnings into organisational change will ensure professional staff continue to  contribute to the university’s much needed flexible, adaptable and resilient workforce, strong leadership, and the ability to respond quickly to new modes of operating for teaching, research, engagement and services.

The authors have worked in several universities in Australia in senior professional and executive roles over many years. Baré and Beard are honorary senior fellows with the LH Martin Institute and Tjia is a senior consultant. 
This is an edited extract of a paper appearing on the website of the L H Martin Institute, Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education. 



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