The higher education sector has been forced to rapidly respond to the COVID‑19 pandemic, which has exposed it to new financial risks and revealed its over-dependence on international markets.
This chapter discusses the short to medium term impacts of COVID-19 upon insecure workers in the sector, including job losses, pressures created by online teaching and learning, and reported increases in wage theft. The chapter then concludes with a discussion on the long term viability of the sector after COVID-19.
COVID-19 and the higher education sector
The higher education sector was hit hard and fast by COVID-19 and associated border closures. As a result, insecure workers in universities have faced both external issues―such as the downturn in international student revenue―and internal issues―including the Australian Government excluding them from financial support schemes.
This combination of factors has negatively affected the sector and intensified existing issues, particularly those faced by insecure workers.
Border closures and international students
Australian universities have been steadily relying more on revenue from international students as part of their business models. In 2019, 32 per cent of all full-time-equivalent enrolments at Australian universities were international students. Between 2004 and 2018 international students grew, as a proportion of all revenue, from 14.7 per cent to
24 per cent.
The onset of the pandemic was predicted to interrupt the flow of international students enrolling in Australian universities, and travel restrictions were announced for travellers from mainland China on 1 February 2020, then for all foreign nationals from 20 March 2020.
The border closures had an immediate impact upon international student enrolment numbers. The Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) reported that between 2019 and 2020 there was a 5.1 per cent decline in international student enrolments—the first decline since 2012. Commencements also declined by 23.2 per cent, which is significant considering that since 2016 average annual commencements grew at a rate of 1 per cent.
The decline in international student commencements became more severe in semester two. In the period July-November 2020 international student commencements in higher education were 50 540, compared with 76 358 in the same period of 2019—a decline of almost 34 per cent. Australian international student enrolments typically peak in semester two and this downward trend suggests that as students complete their education, there are less commencing students taking their place.
Recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data have quantified the ongoing effects of border closures on international student enrolments. In June 2021 there were 470 international student arrivals to Australia, which represented a 99 per cent decrease compared with pre-COVID levels in June 2019. This is a small improvement of 410 arrivals in June 2020, but suggests the return of international students to Australia will be slow.
The effect of declining international student enrolments was reflected in Australian universities reported revenues for 2020. Australian university net profits plummeted by $1.6 billion to just $669 million in 2020—the lowest since 2009. Fifteen of the 38 universities reported a deficit in 2020, with most barely breaking even and only three universities reporting significant surpluses.
The Australian Government has indicated that border closures are likely to be retained into 2022. This will have a significant effect on university budgets with an August 2021 report from the Mitchell Institute estimating that 'every missed six-monthly intake of international students is costing universities about $1 billion to $1.2 billion'.
As illustrated in Figure 9.1, the Mitchell Institute estimated that by the end of 2022, the revenue of Australia's international higher education sector will have halved, decreasing by $19.8 billion since the onset of the pandemic.
Figure 9.1: Annualised value of Australia's international education sector (actual and forecast)
ANU Vice-Chancellor, Professor Brian Schmidt, identified the return of international students as an imperative:
The cumulative effect of border closures on international student numbers will lead to other universities catching up with my university's budget woes this year, and worse in the years beyond.
The $130 billion JobKeeper Payment scheme was announced on 30 March 2020 to support businesses affected by COVID-19. Under the scheme, employers whose revenue had fallen by 30 to 50 per cent over a specified time were able to participate in the scheme, which provided a wage subsidy for workers. Employers nominated all employees that they were entitled to claim for, then received a subsidy from the government to continue paying wages for those workers, regardless of whether they had work for them. The income loss threshold was later amended to 15 per cent, but the scheme specifically did not apply to universities.
Under further changes to the JobKeeper program announced on 1 May 2020, universities were required to use the six-month period of January to June 2020 as the period for revenue changes compared to 2019. Other eligible organisations were able to choose any month or quarter from April to September 2020. Given universities saw greater falls in revenue in semester two of 2020, the amendment further restricted universities from accessing the JobKeeper scheme.
The rules effectively blocked universities from being able to access government support, and no public university qualified for the final iteration of the JobKeeper.
Inquiry participants, including the University of Sydney Casuals Network, argued that the government's decision not to include the university sector in the scheme 'greatly exacerbated the precarious financial position of casual academics'. This is because individuals currently enrolled in a PhD or Masters by Research were unable to access government financial support such as Youth Allowance, Austudy or Rent Assistance. This left many without income during the lockdowns.
Short to medium term impacts
As the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing, the effects upon the higher education sector will likely be realised over multiple years.
Job losses in the higher education sector were experienced immediately and dramatically. Universities Australia reported that at least 17 300 jobs were lost from Australian universities in 2020.
Acknowledged by industry, unions, and university management alike, the loss of jobs was mainly attributed to the decline in revenue from international students. Dr Alison Barnes, National President of the NTEU, contended that:
The impact of COVID-19, with the Government refusing to allow universities access to Jobkeeper and the loss of international student fee income, has driven the mass loss of jobs.
To offset falling revenue, many universities implemented a financial mitigation strategy, which included a reduction in staff. The University of New South Wales (UNSW) reported 500 planned job cuts, or 7.5 per cent of its total staff—265 of which were forced redundancies. The Australian National University (ANU) reportedly cut 465 staff―Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt acknowledged in March 2021 that 1 in 10 of the ANU's staff have departed since 2019. The University of Sydney (USYD) also initiated a voluntary redundancy program, and received 252 expressions of interest. However, USYD reported a 4 per cent increase in international student revenue in 2020.
Job cuts have reportedly continued in 2021. A recent media release from Deakin University announced 'a significant change to the University's overall structure' that will include a 'reduction in positions of between 180 and 220'. Vice-chancellor, Professor Iain Martin, said the changes were 'necessary to secure Deakin's financial future'.
La Trobe University have also reported a new proposal that would result in the further loss of 200 FTE positions―this is following the redundancy of 300 staff in 2020. The job losses are in response to the university reporting a
$165 million revenue deficit in 2020, which Vice-Chancellor John Dewar attributed to an 'over-reliance on fee-paying international students'.
Not all inquiry participants agreed that the extensive job cuts were necessary. One submitter argued that the money was 'there for' university management to be able to retain academic staff, but instead they have treated COVID-19 as a 'cover to further reduce costs that in many cases they could still have afforded'.
When asked to comment on the suggestion that a lot of the job cuts were targeted at unviable courses, where student enrolments had declined, Dr Yaegan Doran, from the Casualised, Unemployed and Precarious University Workers (CUPUW), argued that was not always the case:
I think that was pretty rubbish, in general. The courses that were cut were not always the lowest. They were typically the ones that would make it easier to sack people.
The University of Sydney Casuals Network argued that USYD needs to 'offer transparency about its budgetary constraints as it pertains to casual workers'. Citing the high salaries of university executives, it highlighted the disparity inherent in the fact that the 'smallest number of workers receive the bulk of the benefits, while the majority of workers bear its burdens'.
Dr Barnes said that 'university management … are often paid excessive and offensive wages'. For example, even after an $89 000 salary cut from 2020, UNSW Vice-Chancellor Ian Jacobs reportedly still earned a salary of $1.435 million.
Insecure workers disproportionately affected
The NTEU maintained that university management were able to use the flexibility of their insecure workforce to offset the detriments of reduced international student income. While data showing some of these impacts is not yet available, evidence to the inquiry suggests fixed-term and casual employees may have been among the first to lose their positions or to have their contracted hours reduced.
Chapter 7 outlined the limitations of the DESE data. Those limitations, combined with the delay in reporting, means the proportion of casuals affected by job loss in the sector due to COVID-19 is difficult to establish. COVID-19's true impact on the sector's workforce composition will likely be made more fulsome with the release of the DESE actual casual 2020 data. However a decrease in estimated casual FTE still emerges in the DESE data between 2019‑2020:
3.6 per cent increase in full-time FTE;
4.3 per cent increase in fractional FTE;
3.7 per cent decrease in estimated casual FTE―the only work contract type to decrease.
Anecdotal and industry evidence placed the loss of casuals as much higher than the DESE estimate. From a survey of casual members in March 2020, the NTEU found that 41 per cent of respondents had 'lost work due to COVID-19 in semester one, primarily due to course cancellations or less contact hours with courses moved online.'
The UNSW Casuals Network report, 'Under the Pump, Unpaid and Uncertain', stated in April 2020 that one in three casuals had already lost work in semester one 2020, and 81 per cent were 'concerned about losing their job'.
Dr Doran said the 'bulk' of the staff that lost their job in 2020 were 'casual and fixed staff':
I was one of those—I had a full time contract that ended in July 2020 and despite there being work for me at the beginning of the year, the units I and others were meant to teach were cut, and I along with most of my colleagues in similar situations lost their jobs.
The Australian Higher Education Industry Association (AHEIA) undertook a survey of its 37 member universities in 2020 'to provide some initial indication of the severe financial and staffing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on universities'. AHEIA's data is consistent with claims made by submitters and witnesses that casuals have been dismissed disproportionately. As shown in Figure 9.2, Figure 9.3 and Figure 9.4, between 30 June 2019 and 30 June 2020, there were:
8895 fewer staff engaged on a casual basis, representing an 11.36 per cent reduction in twelve months;
290 fewer staff employed on fixed-term contracts;
1279 more in staff engaged in an on-going basis; and,
for both casual and fixed-term staff, the reduction in professional staff was greater than for academic staff.
According to the AHEIA, the 11.36 per cent reduction in the number of casual staff has been 'the biggest impact arising from universities' deteriorating financial situations'. The decline in the percentage of casual work apparent in the data provided by the AHEIA presents a stark contrast to the DESE's estimated casual data.
Figure 9.2: Casual staff
Source: Australian Higher Education Industry Association (AHEIA), answers to written questions on notice, 3 May 2021 (received 17 May 2021), p. 3.
Figure 9.3: Fixed term staff
Source: AHEIA, answers to written questions on notice,3 May 2021 (received 17 May 2021), p.3.
Figure 9.4: On-going staff
Source: AHEIA, answers to written questions on notice,3 May 2021 (received 17 May 2021), p.4.
Given the ongoing lockdowns across much of Australia, including its most populous states, it is likely that the downward trend of job loss in casual and fixed-term staff will continue.
Transition to online learning
The Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) submitted that the 'uptake of advanced digital technologies and platforms is significantly transforming the nature of “work”, and the Australian workforce and workplace environments more broadly'.
Campus closures necessitated the uptake of digital learning with a large portion of face-to-face university work rapidly transitioning to an online model. As a result academics have been forced to quickly adapt to the shifting job requirements, often at their own expense.
The transition to online learning has 'increased workloads' for academics and inquiry participants suggested university management have been 'negligent in assuming that this extra workload would be shouldered by casual staff'.
Ms Barnes said that, even before the pandemic, the workload of casual academics was significant:
They are expected to write lectures in a period of time that nobody can write lectures in. They are required to mark and to provide pastoral care. In my own experience, in that unit I was talking about, because it was first year, you often had students who had mental health issues and were struggling with university. Our casuals are expected to provide that care with absolutely no remuneration, or concern for their own welfare.
In its report, Over-worked and worked over: Casual academic bear the costs of
Covid-19, the USYD Casuals Network surveyed casual academics to understand the impact that the pandemic has had 'on their job and financial insecurity'. Of its respondents:
82% reported doing extra unpaid work in Semester 1 2020;
75% of casuals reported experiencing an increased workload in Semester 1, 2020, with an average of 50 unpaid hours per worker, and;
85% have incurred additional expenses in the move to online teaching.
Administrative duties and remodelling course content to suit online delivery were the main identified areas that 'increased dramatically', adding to workloads. Casual academics also played a substantial role in offering extra pastoral care to students that struggled with the transition to online learning 'as well as broader issues arising as a result of COVID-19'.
The NTEU submitted that while 'casual and sessional staff were very much involved in the move of courses online', only a minority of them 'expressed that they were being adequately supported by the university in this process'.
USYD Casuals gave similar evidence, contending that, in the case of USYD:
The University has not adequately dealt with—let alone acknowledged—the stresses and insecurity endured by casuals during the rapid transition to online teaching, nor casuals' working conditions more generally.
Box 9.1 includes anecdotal evidence provided by the USYD Casuals Network concerning increased workloads due to COVID-19.
Box 9.1: USYD Casuals Network survey— comments from casual academics on increased workloads during COVID.
'The transition to online learning has meant that I have had to put in significantly more time and effort, without compensation'.
'the change [to online learning] requires of us more individual feedback, individual communication with students. Therefore it doubles or triples our workload'.
'Increased time spent communicating with students and ensuring their wellbeing, making alternative arrangements for them (unpaid). Increased admin load'.
'The biggest add on of unpaid work has been managing emails from students. Many students have been anxious, requesting extensions, many more emails than usual had to be sent out about their lack of engagement in the unit'.
'I am doing approximately double the amount of preparation hours as we move online'.
'Moving online actually means a lot more admin, prep time to ensure that 1) teaching is actually interesting and 2) everything records and uploads smoothly or, when live, that everyone can be understood and that each student has time to contribute'.
The USYD Casuals network argued that during the pandemic 'contingent workers in universities have been highly exposed' and the 'features of casual work have been exacerbated by the pandemic'. COVID-19 has reportedly 'intensified underpayment and non-payment for casual staff' which was already an 'untenable' problem within the sector.
Not only has COVID exacerbated wage theft issues, it has also further encouraged a culture of reluctance to speak up on underpayment issues―employees are increasingly fearful that by raising an instance (or repeated instances) of underpayment they will place their career in jeopardy:
Virtually every university in the country had workers ringing us who were fearful and really reluctant to speak publicly about their experiences. They are losing income. These are people who are often very poorly paid. They don't have many hours of work. They are expected to work for free.
An October 2020 interim report into wage theft at USYD by the USYD Casuals network, found that:
84% of participants performed unpaid work during the audit. Their stolen wages totalled $47,897 over a six-week period.
Participants performed 753 hours of unpaid work over a six week period, equivalent to each person working close to one day (6.6 hours) unpaid every week.
On average, for every dollar casuals were paid, they were not paid 75 cents. This is equivalent to 43% of work going unpaid, or someone in a 9-to-5 job not being paid for work performed after 1:30pm.
Similar evidence reported by the Monash Casuals, the UNSW Casuals Network and La Trobe Casuals indicated that underpayment in the sector exacerbated by COVID-19 is widespread. The report concluded that its findings strengthened evidence of 'sector-wide and systemic exploitation of precarious university workers'.
Long-term viability of the sector
The consequences of insecure working arrangements threaten the sustainability of the higher education sector—a major contributor to Australia's economy and society. Participants in the inquiry agreed that COVID-19 was the catalyst, not the cause, for many of the present challenges.
Dr Barnes explained what impact ongoing insecure employment may have on the future of the sector:
While the level of casual and contract work is already excessive, it is continuing to grow … the passing of the Jobready graduates package last year means that universities now must teach more students with less funding, on average, per student. With international education fee income, which subsidised domestic teaching and research, unlikely to return soon, job losses are set to continue – but the work of teaching the growing number of domestic students remains. This creates a perfect storm which would see insecure work become the only real form of employment in our universities.
A recent EY report, The Peak of Higher Education, included interviews with 32 senior executives in Australian and New Zealand institutions. The report suggested that international student enrolments may have peaked in 2019 and will never return. It stressed that in the coming years 'winning universities' will 'pivot early' toward accessibility and 'embrace learning platforms and acquire new capabilities'. It ominously forecasts that by 2030 a quarter of universities could 'go bankrupt, merge, restructure or close' as the sector is 'reinvented'.
There are impacts for staff currently working in the sector, such as postgraduate researchers, who may leave the sector due to unrealized career goals. This 'lost generation' is devastating for not only the individual researchers who have been forced out of the sector, but also for students, whose educations may suffer. Combined, both serve to significantly reduce the capacity of Australian universities to produce quality benefits for the broader community.
One submitter reflected on the importance of academics to Australia at large as 'the single largest national knowledge resource', and stressed that:
By constantly cutting academic employment and casualising the sector, and applying arbitrary metrics of 'demand', we have continuously reduced the knowledge resource that our universities are capable of being. Consequently, academics are increasingly unable to contribute to any wider community role, even allowing that other requisite pre-conditions make that possible. There appears to be no adequate appreciation of how university-based knowledge is communicated to or benefits the wider community, and what flow-on economic contributions it might make.
Mr Paul Morris of the NTEU spoke on his experience in the sector since 2004 and how the shift to precarious work has been to the detriment of staff and students alike:
I have seen change in the workplace pit employee against employee in an increasingly competitive environment as opposed to the collegiate environment that academia has traditionally been founded upon. In the main, the spoils go to the organisation rather than the employees, and very rarely to our students. Change has ensured a race to the bottom for all except those making the decisions, who invariably move on to better things.
At present, there is no indication that universities will take steps to address the significant issues stemming from insecure work in the sector—instead insecure work will 'continue to grow after the COVID-19 crisis'. Dr Doran and the CUPUW shared this view, contending that it would be irrational to expect 'university managers to self-correct' their employment practices.
Casualisation also has implications for the future of employees already on permanent contracts. A September 2021 report by The Australian Institute, An Avoidable Catastrophe: Pandemic Job Losses in Higher Education and their Consequences, reported that in 2021, 'permanent staff are facing the main job losses' representing 84 per cent of job losses from February to May. By comparison casual staff represented 22.4 per cent of the total employment across the same period, up by half from the previous year. The report concluded that permanent job loss and some stability returning to the sector is 'causing resurgence in the overall incidence of casualisation in Australian universities'.
Dr Barnes pointed out the dichotomy between attempting to educate a future workforce and having a large percentage of academics employed insecurely:
We think there is going to be a bit of a shift where there might be more pressure on university budgets to teach more students for less … Universities are responsible for teaching the next generation of professionals— teachers and nurses; and engineers are also impacted by the reduction in cost—yet we are going to be doing that with people who themselves are not going to be securely employed.
A further departure of human capital from the sector is possible. The USYD Casuals COVID-19 report noted that 'many respondents alluded to the significant possibility of their being forced to leave the sector entirely in future' primarily due to 'lost jobs and lost opportunities to gain teaching experience' in the context of COVID-19. More specifically:
60% are likely to leave academia
60% of casuals feel they are either 'very likely' or 'likely' to leave academia permanently
71% of respondents are 'highly concerned' that university austerity measures will have long-term negative impacts on their career development.
Box 9.2: USYD Casuals Network survey—testimony from casual academics on sector job prospects after COVID-19.
'I'm thinking more and more that academia won't be a viable career option.'
'I have given up on bothering to seek employment in the tertiary sector. I have a strong publication record, and have coordinated and tutored numerous subjects, but I think COVID-19 is the final nail in the coffin for the sector, and so I will [be] transitioning out of the industry'.
'There is incredible uncertainty about my future employment, which leaves me worried and not particularly productive'.
'This will all contribute to the loss of a generation of early career researchers and PhD students who have worked tirelessly for institutions that have failed to recognise their contribution. This has left me questioning my choice of career and the waste of years to get to this point which appears to be fruitless'.
It is difficult to conceive of how the sector will continue to remain competitive and to maintain a standard of excellence in educational quality when a large portion of its staff are subject to insecure working arrangements with such pervasive individual and communal consequences.
It is clear that the issues affecting the higher education sector since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic are not new, but rather a clear continuation and intensification of existing trends. The COVID environment has accentuated flaws in insecure working arrangements that are long overdue for policy reform and correction. Proposals for improving the long-term sustainability of the sector by increasing job security are discussed in