Australian universities flag more budget cuts, job losses in the next year

Naaman Zhou
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: James Ross/AAP</span>
Photograph: James Ross/AAP

The University of Melbourne is pushing ahead with plans to make millions of dollars in budget cuts, despite posting an $8m surplus last year.

Macquarie University in Sydney has also flagged further job losses in 2021 as the economic impact of the pandemic continues.

The University of Melbourne has told staff it will still target savings of $252m in 2021, on top of cuts made in 2020 that created savings of $360m, despite the positive financial result.

In a letter to staff, the vice-chancellor, Duncan Maskell, announced “a small operating surplus of approximately $8m” last year, which he said was “effectively a ‘break-even’ result”.

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But Maskell said the continued financial impacts of the pandemic had created a “pipeline problem” that would affect the university for multiple years.

Revenue fell $275m in 2020, and Maskell said another fall of $200m was projected for 2021, as international students remained shut out of the country.

“The university remains severely challenged financially and continues to operate under conditions of extreme uncertainty,” he said. “The reduction in numbers of international students last year, together with the further reduction we are seeing for 2021, has a long-term impact over subsequent years. Reducing our ongoing cost base to live within our means therefore has to remain an important part of the institution’s response.”

Maskell said the university would continue shedding jobs, but that total redundancies would likely be less than the 450 jobs it previously announced would go over three years.

“We now expect that the total number of jobs lost will be less than the 450 figure that was our best estimate last year, with as many as half of these being voluntary,” Maskell said.

At Macquarie University, staff in three different faculties – including the medicine and science faculties – were sent a proposed savings plan that would slash between 66 and 90 jobs.

A “workplace change proposal” sent to the business school said that the faculty was targeting a further $4.2m in savings in 2021, the equivalent of 17 to 27 full-time positions.

In the science faculty, an “annualised savings target” of $5.5m has been set for this year, and “it is proposed that there will be a reduction in the number of academic staff in the order of approximately 31-38 FTE (full-time equivalents)”.

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For medicine, savings of $3.6m have been identified. “It is anticipated that this will equate to a reduction in the number of academic staff members by between 18 and 25 FTE,” the proposal said.

Nikki Balnave, the president of the Macquarie University branch of the National Tertiary Education Union, said it was “a bit shocking” to see cuts to the medical and science faculties during a pandemic.

“At the end of the day, aren’t universities the future here?” she told Guardian Australia. “Aren’t we supposed to be training the doctors and nurses who are coming up with the vaccines? And [those cuts] are in no small part about the lack of federal government funding too.”

Balnave said some of the job cuts also targeted more senior levels, “which means we will lose a lot of experience that way”.

Steve Adams, the president of the University of Melbourne branch of the NTEU, said that university management could have found savings in its building and expansion costs, rather than cutting jobs.

“It is an extremely wealthy institution but they continue to cry poor,” he said. “It is like bumping into a millionaire on the street, and they say ‘You’ve got to shout me a coffee, I’ve got no money’. You’ve got it, it’s just not in your pocket.”

Adams said the university’s figures on job losses were misleading because they did not count the “hundreds” of casual staff who had lost their jobs.

“[Maskell] neglects to talk about the casual staff who have lost their jobs or lost hours. And the enormous number of fixed term staff who didn’t have their contracts renewed.”

He also said that just over 100 staff had recently been informed they could be made involuntarily redundant. “Technically they have not been made redundant yet, because they have not received their letter yet,” he said. “In a month’s time, we are entering phase 2 and there will probably be more cuts, from what we are hearing”.

Maskell said in his email to staff: “It is hard to see valued colleagues leave…I am personally unhappy at the fact that we have to make changes of this nature… but I also have a responsibility to protect the sustainability of the institution which should properly outlive us all to serve future generations.”