An Avoidable Catastrophe

Pandemic Job Losses in Higher Education and Their Consequences
by Eliza Littleton and Jim Stanford

Australia’s universities were uniquely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and recession — including the closure of borders to most international students, the implementation of new COVID-safe instruction practices, and effective exclusion from  Commonwealth support programs like JobKeeper.

Now, 18 months after the borders were first closed, things are getting worse for universities, not better. New research from the Centre for Future Work confirms that tertiary education has been hit by bigger job losses this year than any other non-agricultural sector in the economy.

The new report, An Avoidable Catastrophe: Pandemic Job Losses in Higher Education and their Consequences, was prepared by Eliza Littleton and Jim Stanford. It shows that total employment in tertiary education in the first half of 2021 fell by 40,000 positions compared to year-earlier levels. Most of the job losses were permanent, full-time positions — and all of them were at public institutions.

During the first months of the pandemic, casual staff were the first university employees to lose their jobs as universities grappled with the sudden loss of international student fees and other impacts of the pandemic. This year, however, the job losses are both much larger, and targeted at permanent full-time staff. This indicates that universities are undertaking a more permanent downsizing and casualisation of their workforce, on expectation that border closures are likely to persist — and the Commonwealth government will continue to refuse targeted assistance necessary to preserve the universities’ instruction and research capacities.

The report urges the Commonwealth government to provide special temporary assistance to universities until borders can reopen and revenues return to normal. Targeted support of $3.75 billion would allow the universities to replace and preserve the jobs cut so far this year. Preserving the functions of Australian universities is especially vital at a moment when the economy is undergoing lasting structural changes as a consequence of the pandemic, and hence more students will need higher education opportunities to support the resulting employment transitions. Moreover, the pandemic also reinforced that the need for top-quality research (including in health sciences) is more urgent than ever.

Full report