BY SALONEE MISTRY
Jobs at Australian universities are under threat, with the sector estimated to lose up to $5 billion, despite the Federal Government announcing the institutions will retain their $18 billion in federal funding for 2020.
This is the same amount universities would have received under the Commonwealth Grants Scheme (CGS) before the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent dramatic fall in enrolments.
Monash University’s National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) representative and media and communications lecturer Ben Eltham said the $18 billion figure was cold comfort.
“The government had funded the same amount last year and there is nothing additional this year to combat the losses faced by the universities,” Dr Eltham said.
Universities have approached the Federal Government for loans but have been denied, Dr Eltham said.
“The government should at least give loans to the universities to fight the financial issues at cheaper interest rates or make them eligible [as employers] for the JobKeeper Payment.”
Before the pandemic hit Australian shores, the sector employed more than 130,000 people in both academic and professional roles.
The NTEU and universities negotiated a framework agreement on Wednesday to save the jobs of 12,000 Australian university employees but, if adopted, it comes at a cost.
Some staff at struggling universities will receive only 85 per cent of their salaries for a year, while the majority of staff will receive between 90 to 95 per cent.
The salaries of those on lower wages will remain unaffected.
The agreement also states displaced fixed-term and casual staff will be prioritised for new roles, and superannuation and leave remain unchanged.
University employees will vote on the agreement on May 25.
Dr Eltham said he believed this step was a bold negotiation on the NTEU’s behalf.
“Monash University staff seem equally split with some feeling horrified and betrayed by this agreement, while the other half feels it is the best way to save jobs,” he said.
“It has had opposition across the country because of the pay cuts and the workers not trusting the universities to honour the agreement.
“However, I believe this is the best of a very bad set of options.”
Monash University was eligible to receive up to $285 million for non-designated courses of study this year, according to the 2018-2020 CGS Funding Agreement.
The figure for designated courses of study was not revealed, but last year the university was eligible to receive up to $57 million.
According to the most recent annual report, in 2018 Monash University employed 15,823 people across its Australian campuses.
While 4,292 of them were ongoing employees, who have no specified date of cessation, 11,531 were fixed term or casual employees.
More than 8,800 of them were classified as academic staff, according to the Monash University website.
Most academic staff have held onto their jobs this semester, as the teaching period began before the true extent of the pandemic’s impact on enrolments was known. But next semester and 2021 brings with them a raft of uncertainties.
Monash University teaching associate Ari Jerrems said there was a lot of insecurity as far as the second half of 2020 goes and for now he is glad he has been in the habit of saving.
“Things are pretty uncertain at the moment and while this is usually the case with casual employees, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from providing any sort of hope for what’s to come next,” Dr Jerrems said.
“The universities at this juncture will also stop appointing new staff so, while I have been applying for jobs, the chances of moving into a permanent position now that I have finished my PhD is not looking too great.”
A Monash University spokesperson told MOJO News the university is working hard to protect as many employees from job losses as they can.
“We are deferring more than $100 million of capital expenditure for this year, [with a] recent reduction of senior executive pay by 20 per cent, 10 per cent going directly to the hardship and compassionate grants for students in need, adversely affected by COVID-19,” the spokesperson said.
But they admitted a reduction in operational costs is “necessary” to meet the 2020 revenue shortfall.
“This includes the reduction in casual and sessional staff, which we have tried to minimise as much as possible.”
The university has managed however to temporarily re-assigning staff to other roles where there is an increased demand for resources.
“We’re committed to protecting as many staff as possible, recognising that a lot of our normal work has changed or reduced because of the decrease in international student enrolments.”
They also said the “negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are widespread” and has affected all campuses, including Malaysia and South Africa, which together employed 1,211 people in 2018.
While the Indonesia campus is not currently open, the university is continuing to proceed with its plans to begin short executive programs later this year.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced a three-step plan to reopen Australia by July.
Allowing international students to enter the country falls under the third step of Mr Morrison’s plan.
“We are open to [allowing international students in], and we would be working with institutions to see how that could be achieved,” he said.
“But it must be done according to those strict quarantine restrictions.”
If international students are not permitted to enter the country, The Age reported the economy is set to hit a projected loss of up to $60 billion in the next three years.
The Monash University spokesperson said while some students are continuing to study via online platforms, the drop in numbers is a cause for concern.
“There is a shortfall in international student numbers across all our campuses, due principally to border closures that will likely be in place for at least the remainder of 2020,” the spokesperson said.