Australia’s most prestigious universities could permanently lose thousands of researchers in the next few months as sandstone institutions hit by COVID-19 face a $2bn fiscal cliff.
New modelling by the Group of Eight, which represents the country’s most prominent higher education institutions, forecasts 6700 jobs will be lost across its member universities because of a lack of foreign students.
Contracts for 4400 researchers in short-term and non-permanent positions are unlikely to be renewed as universities face a serious financial deficit with COVID-19 keeping away full-fee paying overseas students.
The Australian revealed on Thursday that nearly 300 staff including academics at Monash, one of two Group of Eight universities in Melbourne, are set to be laid off by the end of the year.
Along with the 4400 contract staff who could be laid off, the Group of Eight forecasts 2300 permanent academics and professional staff could also go.
The Monash job cuts follow the release of restructuring plans at UNSW, another Group of Eight institution, where 493 positions will be made redundant.
The University of Melbourne’s vice-chancellor, Duncan Maskell, also told The Australian that job losses were inevitable. “The university is potentially facing a $1bn funding gap over the next three years, which is not sustainable, so we will have to take steps to address the shortfall,” Professor Maskell said.
“It is inevitable there will be changes that affect our people and will result in job losses.
“Once we have finalised our strategic response, our people will be the first to know the outcomes,” he said.
Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said it would be hard “if not impossible” to replace researchers who would likely leave the higher education sector if they lost their jobs.
“The stark reality is that much of Australia’s university research workforce — even at the highest performing level — are on fixed-term contracts supported by university revenues not provided by government,” she said.
“For example, they are the specialist technicians who operate complex research infrastructure. So we risk a brain drain on top of our economic hit.”
The sector is currently in discussions with Education Minister Dan Tehan about the future of research funding, as proposed reforms to student fees will leave universities with less profits to fund the work outside of teaching.
Other major universities are now working to try to minimise job cuts but are warning staff they cannot escape the cuts experienced by Monash and UNSW.
Ms Thomson said research staff would likely be hit with lay-offs in the next six to nine months as most of the funding for research comes from revenue from international students and grants.
“This is the workforce who are working across the priority areas of research that will underpin our economic recovery,” she said.
“In that context, and facing the reality of the COVID-19 downturn in university revenues that have funded much of the national research effort, the current structural inefficiencies in research funding in Australia represent a sovereign risk to the nation.”
Monash vice-chancellor Margaret Gardner had earlier predicted cuts would amount to nearly 500 positions — a similar mark to the University of NSW job cuts announced on Wednesday.
However, a Monash spokeswoman told The Australian the union agreement meant that 277 staff would be cut because of a $350m COVID-induced financial hit.
“Job losses are an unfortunate result of the COVID-19 global health crisis across many industries,” she said. “They will continue to be a reality without further government support in particular for research.
“At this stage, for Monash there will be a loss of 277 jobs by the end of year. Without the (enterprise agreement) variation, this figure would have been 467.”
The Australian understands 105 of the lay-offs will be academic positions at Monash with the rest being administrative roles.
The lack of foreign students has been exacerbated by the suspension or delay of programs to bring small batches of students from overseas into Australia. NSW, Victoria, the ACT and South Australia have all pushed back pilot programs because of Melbourne’s COVID outbreak.
A University of Queensland spokeswoman also confirmed job losses at Brisbane’s top university were a likely outcome unless the arrival of foreign students into Australia resumed shortly.
“Early moves to cut expenditure significantly helped absorb the current reduction in revenue with moderate impact to staff, teaching or research,” she said.
“However, unless there is a positive development with international student arrivals, it is near inevitable that tougher measures will need to be taken, and we are considering our options.”
A University of Sydney spokeswoman said the university was yet to make any COVID-related job redundancies to deal with its $470m budget shortfall, but it would lose 10 people from its infrastructure team.
Universities Australia has previously predicted 21,000 job losses across the entire university sector over the next year.