Lessons to inform post COVID-19 university professional services

By Elizabeth Bare, Janet Beard and Teresa Tjia


The impact of COVID-19 will result in a transformation of Australian higher education as it attempts to deal with high levels of uncertainty, funding shortfalls and new work practices. What is likely is that Australian universities will have to teach more with less, potentially accentuated by government policy changes proposed in June 2020.

Universities are now locking in reduced operating expenditure over future years and have moved quickly on a range of fiscal management measures. Employee expenses usually constitute between 50 to 60% of institutional expenditure, so staffing strategies including wage freezes, reduction in leave balances as well as voluntary and involuntary redundancies are being actively pursued. These are coupled with plans for course changes and organisational restructures of academic and professional staff areas.

Restructures and other initiatives designed to reduce or reallocate staffing costs have been a regular feature of university life over recent years with varying degrees of long-term success in maintaining costs and achieving the desired benefits. Often casual staff and professional staff are targeted first as they appear to be viewed as the most dispensable.

In an earlier paper we explored the casualisation of the academic workforce1 and in this paper we explore the professional staff workforce and the lessons which can be learned from the past when responding to COVID-19 and Government policy changes.

We use publicly available data2 on previous restructures involving professional staff (or ‘nonacademic’ staff as described in the Government’s Higher Education Statistics (HES) which in itself indicates how professional staff have been viewed), to consider whether redundancy programs and organisational restructures have been cost effective and delivered sustained and improved outcomes.

We question whether there are other ways of achieving the same desired outcomes and whether there are lessons which can inform responses to COVID-19 and Government policy changes to focus on both strategic and sustainable outcomes, and maintain an engaged workforce throughout and on the other side.

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Elizabeth Bare and Janet Beard, Honorary Senior Fellows, LH Martin Institute, and Teresa Tjia, Strategic Advisor. We have held senior professional and executive roles in several Australian universities over many years.

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Elizabeth Baré