Several regional Australian universities are planning to shut campuses while others are set to announce hundreds of job losses in coming weeks to deal with the sharp falls in revenue due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Without access to jobkeeper – the sector has been specifically excluded by the Morrison government – universities are frantically working on strategies to deal with billions in revenue shortfalls from the loss of international student fees. Most expect the situation will continue to get worse into 2021.

Experts say the number of job losses over the 38 universities could reach into the tens of thousands and would affect administrative staff to professors.

The University of Central Queensland, based in Rockhampton, said this week it would move ahead with the forced separation of 99 positions, as well as 197 voluntary redundancies, and that it would close its Biloela, Noosa and Yepoon sites.

Southern Cross University, in northern NSW, and Charles Sturt university, based in Bathurst, are also looking at campus closures.

At Deakin University, in Melbourne, 419 jobs will go to deal with the gaping hole in its budget left by the inability of foreign students to travel.

A spill and fill process, dubbed the “hunger games”, has been implemented to find the cuts.

In some faculties, staff are being required to reapply for their jobs. In Deakin’s criminology school, one position is going but all seven staff must reapply for the remaining jobs.

Staff said in many faculties there was no process for voluntary redundancies.

“We have concerns about the process,” said one staff member, who declined to give their name. “It’s being done in a brutal and horrific way. People are distressed and deeply disgusted with the demeaning process they have adopted.”

Facing a protracted downturn in international student revenue, which in some institutions accounted for nearly 40% of total revenue, each university is now attempting to deal with shortfalls of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The University of NSW, which has one of the largest exposures to international students, has estimated its losses at up to $600m in 2020 (from a budget of $2bn), with possible losses of $450m in 2021 and again in 2022. 

In a statement UNSW said it had made “good progress” in addressing the 2020 shortfall through a combination of non-wage savings and using reserves.

“The UNSW senior executive team, including the vice chancellor, have taken a 20 per cent pay cut. More than 1,000 staff – about 20% of UNSW staff – also volunteered to reduce their salaries or their days of work – some in exchange for leave. These measures have raised around $15m in savings.

“UNSW has already deferred capital expenditure, frozen travel costs, reduced discretionary spending and stopped all but essential recruitment. The university is also utilising its cash reserves, contingency funds and existing borrowing facility.”

The University of Technology, Sydney, which was identified as an institution at high risk by an analysis from Melbourne University’s Prof Ian Marshman, said its revenue this year would be down at least $125m, and the overall impact of Covid-19 would be between $170m and $190m.

But it said the Marshman analysis “vastly exaggerates” the university’s exposure and omitted the effect of the “sensible savings measures” it had put in place.

UTS has one of the highest levels of casual employees and fixed-term contracts and the National Tertiary Education Union fears there will be hundreds of job losses if it freezes hiring. It did not respond to requests about its plans.

Also identified as high risk was the University of Canberra. It took issue with the Marshman analysis, saying it did not properly assess UC’s circumstances when it came to liabilities and cash reserves. The university has adopted a three-phase approach, beginning with a hiring freeze and savings strategy, before looking at job cuts.

The University of Wollongong is seeking to vary its enterprise agreement with staff to cut wages, but has warned that more than 300 jobs will need to go if the pay cut is not accepted by staff.

The University of Tasmania told staff on Wednesday its outlook was very much affected by how long state and national borders stayed closed.

“Our financial modelling shows that we face revenue losses in 2020 of between $30-$34m, and between $60-$120m per year in 2021 and 2022,” it told staff this week. “Where we land in that range largely depends on how the borders are managed and what happens in international and domestic education markets.”

It has taken on debt of $130m and frozen salaries, but warned that $40m to $50m a year would need to come out of salaries. It is prioritising a voluntary redundancy process over forced layoffs.

Increased competition for students next year and some of the government’s own policies, such as additional financial support for universities to offer short courses, is likely to hit smaller regional institutions very hard.

That in turn will hurt regional towns where universities are an important part of the local economy.

In his letter to CQU staff late last week, vice chancellor Prof Nick Klomp said he had been forced to lay off staff as well as calling for voluntary redundancies.

Labor is planning to move a disallowance motion in the Senate for the regulation that excludes universities jobkeeper, but will need support from the minor parties.

“For weeks now, Labor has been urging the federal government to act to help universities and save jobs,” Labor’s education spokeswoman, Tanya Plibersek, said.

“But Scott Morrison hasn’t done anything to help, and now jobs are being lost, with thousands more to come. 

 “The federal government cannot explain why a university student working a $100 shift per week receives the full $750 a week jobkeeper wage subsidy, while a full-time university worker with kids to support, gets nothing,” she said.



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