Australian university staff job losses exceed pandemic financial outcomes

By Frank Larkins

Summary: Universities have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic financial stresses they experienced in the period 2019 to 2021 with very different approaches to restructuring their staffing profiles. It is evident that many universities assessed the financial risks associated with the pandemic to be greater than the actual outcomes. Employee benefits represent more than 50% of expenditure outlays so staff reductions became a high priority in financial management strategies. Consequently, for some universities staff losses were greater than warranted based solely on 2020 financial results.

All except three institutions reduced their staff FTE numbers from 2019 to 2020, even though eight institutions increased their net financial strength during this period. Sector-wide casual staff FTE numbers were reduced by 30% over the two years, while continuing staff reductions were 3.4%. Casuals accounted for 65.6% of all the 11,143 FTE staff losses, while representing just 14% of total employed staff. Head count staff losses are around 50% higher. NSW universities experienced the highest staff losses.

It is concluded, based upon the analyses reported in this paper, that some universities have used the uncertain and unpredictable environment created by the pandemic as an opportunity to undertake academic and administrative structural reforms not primarily directly driven by financial stresses induced by 2019-2021 changes in student fees income and investment returns. Faculties and departments have been restructured, subject offerings reduced, and other curriculum reforms implemented leading to very significant staff reductions in some universities. Many universities are expected to report a strong financial recovery in 2022.

Professor Emeritus Frank Larkins is an Honorary Professorial Fellow from the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education and School of Chemistry, at The University of Melbourne.

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Professor Emeritus Frank Larkins

f.larkins@unimelb.edu.au