03/02/2021 - 06:30

Higher education loses 17k jobs

03/02/2021 - 06:30

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Universities shed tens of thousands of jobs and lost close to $2 billion this past year as travel restrictions and funding changes dampened the sector’s bottom line.

Higher education loses 17k jobs
International enrolments have plummeted due to ongoing travel restrictions. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Universities shed tens of thousands of jobs and lost close to $2 billion this past year as travel restrictions and funding changes dampened the sector’s bottom line.

That’s according to newly collated data from Universities Australia, which shows a year-on-year decline in operating revenue for the sector of nearly 5 per cent.

The sector is expected to experience a year-on-year drop of 6 per cent this year.

“The cumulative impact won’t be felt just in 2020 and 2021, but for years to come,” Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Universities Australia, said.

“No sector can absorb revenue declines this large without staff losses.

“At least 17,300 jobs have been lost on campuses in 2020.

“Universities have worked hard to limit job losses by halting infrastructure projects, making tough decisions about courses and making savings wherever they could – but the effect of COVID-19 on the higher education sector has come at a real cost.”

These figures represent a dire outcome for Australia’s universities, which have struggled for much of 2020 with the loss of fees from international students.

In WA, these fees contributed about half-a-billion dollars in revenue to the sector, or about 15 per cent of all funds to the state’s five major universities.

While some, such as Northern Territory’s Charles Darwin University, have engineered plans to receive at least a handful of international students this year, no university in Western Australia has yet welcomed international arrivals in large numbers since international travel came to a halt last year.

Many, including Murdoch University and Curtin University, have begun offering staff volunteer redundancies, while the University of Western Australia restructured its leadership in October.

Further complicating matters were changes to funding as part of the federal government’s Job-ready Graduates Bill, which were intended to herd students into more employable degrees, as well as a lack of direct assistance from the federal government at the height of the pandemic.

Universities were notable for not having received any wage subsidies over the past 12 months; at various times, the threshold for qualification was set prohibitively high, with universities required to demonstrate a 50 per cent loss in revenue over a six-month period to receive funding.

No university qualified under that arrangement and no other sector was subjected to those requirements.

In comments accompanying today’s announcement, Ms Jackson said she was thankful for the federal government’s announcement of $1 billion in support for research in October while framing the sector as vital to the nation’s economic recovery.

“Universities provide the ‘standing army’ of research capability that can tackle the challenges and seize the opportunities,” she said.

“Universities Australia will continue to advocate for the needs of the sector at this time of crisis and will continue to talk with Government about funding sustainability.”

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