In an analysis of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the financial health of Australian universities it was reported that the sector revenue for 37 universities was $1.8 billion less in 2020 than in 2019 with the major reductions being in student fees and charges and investment returns. Typically, between 50 per cent and 60 per cent of all university expenditure is for employee benefits. Hence, it is no surprise that universities reviewed their staffing profiles as a priority to reduce expenditure and so minimise the severity of any financial stresses being experienced.

In recent articles we have reported that over the two-year period 2019 to 31 March 2021 higher education institution staff losses were 11,146 (8 per cent of staff) on a full time equivalent basis (FTE) including 30 per cent of all casuals. New South Wales institutions experienced 4,500 FTE (40 per cent) of these staff losses.

The outcomes for individual universities reveal that some 29 of 42 Universities have total staff losses of more than 100 FTE. Those universities with proportional total staff losses of more than 10 per cent are shown in figure 1 and those with less than 10 per cent are presented in figure 2. The percentage decreases in casual FTE staff from 2019 to 2021 are also included in the figures. Some 13 HEIs with less than 100 FTE staff losses during the period are not reported here.

Figure 1.  Percentage Decrease in Casuals and Total FTE Staff for 15 Universities from 2019 to 2021


Some 15 of 42 HEIs are in this first group with total staff losses ranging from 10 per cent to 20 per cent and casual staff losses from 19 per cent to 59 per cent.

The proportion due to casual staff terminations varies quite considerably in comparison to the total staff losses. This outcome reflects policy decisions made by institutions.  Differences in Full Time and Fractional Full Time staff losses account for the casual variations.

La Trobe is the university most impacted, reporting a 20 per cent loss of total staff over the two-year period, including by 31 March 2021 a loss of 59% of all the casual staff employed in 2019. These are very high attrition numbers that must seriously impact on university operations. La Trobe was identified in an earlier article as one of the universities most severely impacted financially by the pandemic. Swinburne, Southern Cross, CQU and Wollongong were also on the financially challenged list. They are identified among the present group of 15 universities that have been most proactive in using changes in the staffing profile to address financial matters.

Bond and Notre Dame Australia, experienced the next highest staff losses at 19 per cent, with Swinburne U and Western Sydney U reporting an 18 per cent decrease in their workforce. Some seven of the 15 universities shown are from NSW, consistent with the earlier report that NSW institutions were most impacted.

The total casual staff losses for 10 of the universities exceeded 30 per cent, with La Trobe, Bond, Notre Dame Australia, Wollongong and CQU above 40 per cent. UNSW, with a 15 per cent total staff loss, including 37 per cent of casual staff, was the only Go8 university in this group of 15.

The second group of 14 universities reporting total staff losses of more than 100 FTE reduced their total workforce by between 4 per cent and 9 per cent. These universities are shown in figure 2. Casual staff losses as a proportion of total 2019 casuals are again high, in the range 39 per cent (Deakin) to Adelaide (15 per cent). The balance between continuing staff (FT&FFT) and casual staff terminations vary quite considerably between institutions.

Figure 2.  Percentage Decrease in Casuals and Total FTE Staff for 14 Universities from 2019 to 2021

There are another two NSW universities in this group, Sydney and Newcastle, four Victorian and three South Australian universities. Seven universities are from the Go8 group.

Four universities QUT, Deakin, ANU and UWA are among the group of ten universities identified in the earlier study as among those whose financial operations were predicted to be most severely impacted by the pandemic. The remaining institution in the ten most severely financially challenged was Federation U. It has not been included here because staff losses were less than 100 FTE.

One important driver of staff reduction policies, but not the only one, for most institutions was the actual or anticipated loss in overseas students. The changes in EFTSL from 2019 to 2020 are known; however, the 2021 enrolments will not be released by the Government before late 2022 at the earliest. The changes are shown in the table with universities presented in the same order as in figures 1 and 2.

Changes in Overseas Students EFTSL Enrolments from 2019 to 2020 and the Percentage Change from 2019

Change   EFTSL Percent Change   EFTSL Percent Change   EFTSL Percent
La Trobe -1,324 -17% C Sturt -1,659 -27% Monash -1,929 -6%
Bond -600 -22% N.England -235 -19% ANU -1,776 -21%
Notre Dame 46 31% CQU -2,262 -36% USA 131 3%
Swinburne -785 -9% UTS -1,662 -14% UWA -203 -5%
West Syd -342 -5% Murdoch -441 -6% Sydney -167 -1%
Wollongong -1,145 -10% QUT -1,172 -15% Queensland
UNSW -2,641 -14% Adelaide 336 5% Newcastle -356 -8%
Griffith -186 -3% Deakin -1,447 -12% Melbourne -2,476 -10%
Macquarie -1,075 -12% Flinders -115 -3% RMIT -1,980 -8%
South Cross -1,067 -27% Curtin -367 -4%


There is almost no correlation between the total staff losses shown in the figures and the percentage reduction in overseas student enrolments shown in the table. Some universities have used additional opportunistic strategies to determine their staff reduction policies within the pandemic environment.

It is noteworthy that three universities, Notre Dame, Adelaide and Uni SA, (shown in blue in the table) actually increased their overseas student enrolments from 2019 to 2020. These universities also increased their domestic enrolments during this period, so factors other than student enrolments must have determined their staff reduction policy decisions.

Only five of the 29 universities profiled did not increase their domestic student enrolment from 2019 to 2020. They were, La Trobe, Monash, QUT, Queensland and ANU (shown in pink in the table). Their staff management challenges were compounded by the decrease in domestic student EFTSL.

Twenty four of the 29 universities profiled were able to offset to varying degrees the loss of overseas student income by increasing domestic student income. Without this compensation the financial losses and staff losses would have been greater than the $1.8 billion reported for universities.

A more complete understanding of the staff changes and the strategies employed must await the staffing statistics to 31 March 2022 and the 2021 student enrolment data.

Professor Emeritus Frank P. Larkins

Melbourne Centre for the study of Higher Education

The University of Melbourne


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