Briefing paper

An avoidable catastrophe: pandemic job losses in higher education and their consequences

Job loss Educational finance Educational quality Unemployment Universities Higher education Australia
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An avoidable catastrophe 419.72 KB

Australia’s higher education system was hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting recession than any other industry in Australia’s economy. Public health measures and the closure of Australia’s borders to international students created a financial and operational catastrophe for Australia’s universities.

The Commonwealth government made matters worse by arbitrarily excluding universities from the JobKeeper wage subsidy program (originally budgeted at $130 billion, and meant to support 6 million jobs through the initial lockdowns). Universities were left on their own to deal with collapsing revenues, operational challenges (like online learning), and health restrictions. Academics, researchers, support staff and students have all suffered immensely from this painful but avoidable crisis.

Key findings:

  • So far in 2021, tertiary education lost 40,000 jobs (almost one job in five). Universities suffered more job loss over the last 12 months than any other non-agriculture sector in the economy.
  • Most of those jobs (about 35,000) were lost from public universities. More jobs were lost in TAFEs and other public vocational education institutions.
  • Job losses are getting worse, not better. And they now mostly affect permanent and full-time positions (unlike the initial lockdowns, when casual workers suffered the largest job losses). The pandemic is thus reinforcing the perverse trend of casualisation in universities.
  • Women have experienced disproportionate job cuts – more than their share of total employment.
  • Reduced staffing and increased casualisation will hurt the quality of education, and undermine the ability of Australian universities to support national economic recovery.
  • The Commonwealth government could prevent these job losses by providing $3.75 billion in additional funding to universities per year until normal teaching and international education can resume.
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