Universities to lose thousands of jobs, hitting research

More than 21,000 jobs will be lost in Australia’s universities over the next six months as a result of the impact of the pandemic on the nation’s research workforce.

The institutions are also facing revenue falls of up to AU$4.6 billion (US$3 billion) in 2020, while the loss to university research and development has been estimated at AU$2.5 billion (US$1.6 billion).

In a grim report to the federal government, Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel says the nation’s research workforce will be severely impacted by the pandemic.

“The effects are likely to be felt for an extended period,” Finkel says.

Among those to suffer from the effects of the coronavirus on the nation’s higher education system are women, early-career researchers and recent graduates, who will be disproportionately affected, his report states.

At the same time, income to universities, medical research institutes, publicly funded research agencies and the industrial sector all face significant falls.

The loss of income from the fees paid by tens of thousands of foreign students and a sharp decline in business research spending and philanthropy is affecting all institutions, the report says.

“Universities are already cutting the number of casual teachers and increasing the teaching loads of permanent staff, further limiting their research capacity.

“These impacts are greater than during the 2008 global financial crisis and are also being observed internationally.”

Among the 21,000 full-time equivalent positions to disappear over the next six months, the report says 7,000 could be research-related academic staff.

Domestic and international postgraduate students comprise 57% of the university R&D workforce and they will also be affected.

“Research interruptions along with travel and visa restrictions will affect more than 9,000 international research students who will not resume their research in 2020,” the report states.

“Industry sectors may experience a reduced capacity to innovate given that universities perform approximately 43% of all applied research in Australia,” it says.

“A decline in innovation may limit economic growth by slowing the development of new technology, skills and efficiency gains in service and production processes.”

The report says that “to try and make ends meet as budgets contract”, universities are reducing the number of casual teachers and increasing the teaching loads of permanent staff. Research – industry, government and academic – will be negatively impacted by the economic aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Job losses will unfold over the next six months or longer as the true impacts of the reduction in international fee revenue, industry co-investment and the labour force affect Australian companies, universities and scientific agencies, the report says.