Axe starts to fall on academic jobs as 500 go at UNSW

The first large-scale slashing of university staff numbers has begun at Australia’s largest university. The University of New South Wales (UNSW) informed its workforce on 15 July that nearly 500 full-time positions would disappear because of a AU$370 million (US$259 million) budget shortfall.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs told staff the university had been forced to cut jobs “as a result of the fallout from the nation’s coronavirus pandemic”.

Jacobs said that even after reducing “non-people-cost expenditure and tapping into reserves”, the university still faced a shortfall of AU$75 million.

The university has proposed that 493 academics and general staff should volunteer for redundancy by the end of the month.

A senior academic said the only way to “address the budget shortfall” was through job losses. If enough staff did not volunteer, the university would then move to forced redundancies, the academic said.

Chief scientist’s warning

Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel warned last month that more than 21,000 jobs would be lost in the nation’s universities as a result of the impact of the pandemic on Australia’s research workforce.

Finkel said the institutions were also facing revenue falls of up to AU$4.6 billion in 2020, while the loss to university R&D had been estimated at AU$2.5 billion.

In a grim report to the federal government, Finkel said Australia’s research workforce would also be severely impacted by the pandemic and that the effects would likely be felt for “an extended period”.

Union attacks government

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) attacked the government for not extending its ‘JobKeeper’ scheme to the university sector so that staff would not be laid off.

Under JobKeeper, employers receive government grants to help maintain their worker numbers.

Without money from that scheme, some 600 university staff across Australia have already been forced to accept redundancy.

A UNSW spokesperson said the decision to cut staff numbers had to be made “to meet the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the collapsing international student market”.

“This is a painful but unavoidable reality in current circumstances,” the spokesperson said. “To minimise the need for compulsory job losses, a voluntary redundancy programme will be offered, starting immediately.”

NTEU National President Alison Barnes called the job cuts “devastating news”.

“Close to 500 UNSW employees face a completely uncertain future,” Barnes said. “Responsibility for these losses lies squarely with [federal Minister] Dan Tehan and the federal government.

“They have stubbornly refused to extend JobKeeper to Australian universities and failed to offer anything close to an adequate support package. Australian universities provide first-class research and teaching, but they have been deserted by a second-rate government.”

The union believes that the jobs of hundreds of casual workers across the university sector, as well as those holding fixed-term positions, are also under threat.

“[The affected] staff are shocked, they’re devastated, they’re angry. They share the view that job cuts aren’t necessary,” an NTEU official said.

“They are also angry at the vice-chancellor [Ian Jacobs] and at the federal government for not having a rescue package for our higher education staff.

“Anyone who loses their job at the moment in the midst of the worst financial downturn in living memory is going to find it very hard to get another one.”

‘Cuts had to be made’

In a statement announcing the cuts, a university spokesperson said the cuts were necessary because of a reduced international student intake due to the pandemic, and uncertainty about the number of overseas students enrolling in future years.

But a spokesman said the union would “vigorously fight the cuts”.

“We’re calling on the university management to talk to the union about alternatives. We’re also calling a meeting of all staff for next week,” he said.

“We will mobilise against all job cuts, and fight them with all means at our disposal.”

For the nation’s academic and general staff, however, the unfolding events at UNSW are an ominous warning that universities across Australia now face the grimmest prospects any of them have ever experienced.