A significant decline in international student fee revenue is having a major impact on university finances and necessitating deep and sustained cost-cutting responses in Australian public universities.

With some 57 per cent of total university expenditure allocated to employment and related costs, workforce savings are an inevitable consequence.  Using publicly available information for the period from early March to mid-September 2020, we analysed the workforce response of Australian public universities to COVID-19.

The analysis suggests that the financial impact on the sector of the pandemic amounts to approximately $3.8bn for 2020, with expectations of overall job losses  amounting 5,600 FTE continuing appointments.  This does not include an as yet unknown number of terminations of casual and fixed term staff.  A conservative estimate of a 25 per cent cut in casual and research-only fixed-term staff would result in a further loss of staff equivalent to 7,500 FTE (impacting an estimated 17,500 people). In FTE terms the total job loss amounts to 10 per cent of the workforce. In headcount terms the proportion is greater.

The absence of any government support for public universities, particularly through eligibility for the JobKeeper programme and the inability of the sector as a a whole to successfully negotiate with unions a Job Protection Framework means that each university has determined its own approach to managing employment costs.  By mid-September, from what has been publicly reported:

* ten universities have gained staff support to vary their enterprise agreements. The Enterprise Agreement variations enable the universities to reduce or delay job losses by freezing salary increases and purchasing leave entitlements

* seventeen universities have taken a management-led approach and implemented voluntary and involuntary redundancy programmes within the framework of existing enterprise agreements

* one university has signalled that significant workforce change is not anticipated

* among the remaining nine universities, responses are still under consideration or there is limited publicly available information on their expected loss or approach.

What is apparent from the analysis is that:

* with few notable exceptions, the universities with the largest exposure to reductions in international fee revenue have been quickest to publicly respond, with initiatives designed to reduce employment expenditure and have been the most willing to articulate job savings targets.

* with the exception of ANU and James Cook, the only universities which have achieved staff approval to enterprise agreement variations have done so by first securing union support of the proposed package of changes to employment conditions.

* a very small number of universities appear confident that they have appropriate settings and contingencies in place to weather the COVID-19 storm, without major reductions in employment costs

* very few universities appear to have made provision for casual or fixed term staff in their employment plans under negotiation with unions and staff.  In part this suggests universities are taking an opportunistic approach to cost savings and a relatively low priority among unions and staff representatives for the interests of those most affected by the casualisation of the higher education workforce.

It is also apparent that the extent of the income loss and the size and resourcing of the university is not the sole determinant as to how universities have responded.  Clearly, other factors have come into play, including leadership capacity and vice-chancellor transition, level of staff engagement and relationship with unions, perceived sense of urgency, alignment of COVID-19 responses with broader university strategy and the availability of alternative savings options.

Looking ahead, Australian universities will face a number of longer-term workforce challenges in the post-pandemic recovery and renewal phases.  Six examples are:

* the need for greater focus, differentiation and purpose for academic programmes, and industry and community partnerships

* maintaining institutional research capabilities and building career paths for early stage researchers

* retaining and acquiring skills sets required for an increasingly blended face-to-face and on-line mode of programme delivery

* enhancing student experience in a mixed-mode on-campus and digital settings

* catering for changes in student demand which may occur, in part in response to the government’s Job-ready Graduates package

* flexible and distributed work arrangements and working conditions may require different styles of management, communication, policies and processes.

Perhaps most fundamental of all is the need for the sector to respond to the inequity of the current employment structure, with a core of well-paid and protected permanent staff, coupled with high levels of staff on contingent or casual contracts, the latter undertaking the majority of undergraduate teaching and front-line professional services delivery.


Ian Marshman, Janet Beard and Elizabeth Baré are honorary senior fellows within the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne. Teresa Tjia is a strategic advisor with senior executive experience in higher education. The detailed analysis which is the basis of this article is here.


to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education