12,000 university jobs saved in deal with unions

The jobs of at least 12,000 university staff, at risk because of the COVID-19 crisis, have been saved under a landmark agreement between Australian universities and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).

The deal came a day after it was reported that more than 21,000 jobs would 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.

Universities are facing a sector-wide revenue loss of up to AU$5 billion (US$3.2 billion) this year, and even more in subsequent years, following a collapse in international and domestic student enrolments. The loss to university research and development has been estimated at AU$2.5 billion (US$1.6 billion).

The jobs agreement will be implemented by an independent expert panel of staff and managers at a national and local campus level.

Following crisis meetings between the union and university representatives, the agreement guarantees that there will be no involuntary staff suspensions without pay.

But the union has agreed that some staff “at deeply affected universities” will receive 85% of their existing salaries, while a large majority at other institutions will be paid 90%-95% of their former earnings.

The agreement includes a proviso that employees on lower wages will not be affected and that temporary salary reductions will only occur after non-staff costs and management salaries have been cut.

Non-wage conditions such as superannuation and annual leave will continue to accrue at the standard rate while “displaced casual and fixed-term staff will be prioritised for new work”.

The universities and union agreed that any redundancies would only occur in cases where a university could “explicitly prove” there was no work for the employee to do.

No perfect option

“There are no perfect options in a crisis,” said NTEU National President Dr Alison Barnes.

“In the absence of a properly funded federal crisis package, our union has intervened to put income security and fairness at the centre of a national response.”

Barnes said that had the agreement between the union and the universities not been reached, then mass sackings would have occurred.

“This would have seen careers derailed and livelihoods destroyed,” she said.

“This framework enshrines the voice and input of staff at both a national and local level. It preserves more than 12,000 jobs, and secures entitlements such as superannuation and leave.”

Barnes said it was now incumbent on the federal government to “come to the table with a crisis funding package that recognised that AU$4.5 billion had melted away from Australian universities in the previous six weeks”.

“Our universities should be researching COVID-19 therapies and training the next generation of nurses, paramedics and doctors,” Barnes said.

“Federal [Education] Minister Dan Tehan must ensure that the university workforce does not end up in the unemployment line.”

Unprecedented challenges

Universities Australia Chair Professor Deborah Terry said estimates indicated that universities faced a revenue decline of between AU$3 billion and AU$4.6 billion this year.

“Universities are looking for ways to work together as staff, students, unions and employers to address unprecedented challenges,” Terry said.

“Individual universities will now need to look at the details and decide if they will take part, based on their own unique circumstances.”

Universities have been hard hit by the impact of COVID-19, and they need to work out whether the package is going to assist them to make the financial savings they now need to make, she said.

“Ultimately, we are all working towards the same aim – the ongoing viability of Australia’s higher education sector and the essential role universities and their staff play in our communities.”

Universities that intended to take advantage of the framework will have to put their variation to a staff vote and then have it approved by the Fair Work Commission.

Grim report

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

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

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 stated.

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 said.

“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.”

Written before the deal to save 12,000 jobs, the report said among the 21,000 full-time equivalent positions that could disappear over the next six months, 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 stated.

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

“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 said 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 said.

This article was updated on 16 May 2020.