It’s the Australian university sector’s ‘dirty secret’. And ‘thousands’, like Dash, have been hit

Some of Australia’s most prestigious and cashed-up universities are being accused of hypocrisy, as data reveals almost 70 per cent of staff are employed insecurely while “thousands” have been laid off as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Labelled as the industry’s “dirty secret” by unions, Victoria is the only state where the law compels academic institutions to report casual employment data.

It reveals a record 68.74 per cent of staff are employed as casuals or short-term contracts.

The ABC understands as many as 5,000 staff at just two Melbourne institutions have no more work — suggesting sector job losses are being significantly under-reported.

And senior university industry figures say the Victorian figure is reflected nationally in information sent to the Federal Department of Education.

“[The numbers] are terrible,” National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) president Dr Alison Barnes said.

“They [the teachers] have no financial security and that means it’s difficult to take holidays, get mortgages, plan a family but it’s also that chronic insecurity leads to stress and problems of emotional wellbeing,”

The rush towards insecure work has been led by the University of Melbourne, Australia’s richest tertiary institution, which listed reserves of $4.43 billion while employing 72.9 per cent of staff on insecure terms.

Monash University was a close second on the list, with 72.8 per cent of staff employed casually or on short-term contracts but it had much smaller reserves of just over $1 billion.

An aerial view of rows of seated graduation students with colourful sashes over their black academic robes.An aerial view of rows of seated graduation students with colourful sashes over their black academic robes.
Students at the University of Melbourne, which has been accused of ‘hypocrisy’ over its cash reserves.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

Reserves are defined as unspent revenue or investments used for emergencies.

A University of Melbourne spokesman said much of its reserves were “committed” through endowments, capital projects, research, and “employee entitlements”.

Job losses continue

On Wednesday UNSW told staff it was seeking 493 voluntary redundancies by the end of the month, joining a long list of institutions to announce widespread job losses.

And according to unions the lax reporting and quiet culling of casuals means the true toll of lost jobs from COVID-19 is likely to be “many thousands” rather than the roughly 1500 forced and voluntary redundancies announced publicly.

A report released in May from the Rapid Research Information Forum (RRIF) — and handed to the Federal Government — estimated that 21,000 full-time equivalent jobs in the university sector were at risk by the end of the year, with 7,000 estimated to be research-related academic positions.

The University of Melbourne said it was not able to say how many casuals had lost work since COVID-19.

Monash University did not respond to inquiries.

Fired over zoom call

Former Deakin University employee Dash Jayasuriya is one of the workers swiftly let go as the numbers of international students fell.

A woman at a home office looking at her phone A woman at a home office looking at her phone
Dash Jayasuriya said she felt abandoned by her employer.(ABC News: Simon Winter)

“As we approached the end of April, I started to get really anxious, I was kind of not sleeping, I was feeling really stressed,” Ms Jayasuriya said.

Ms Jayasuriya had been employed at the university most of her adult life, with the last six-and-a-half years teaching English accreditation to international students as a casual, then on contract.

By the end of April her fears were realised when she was told her contract would not be renewed and she was let go in a Zoom call weeks before her contract ended.

“I called two of my colleagues on Zoom straight away and I just remember crying and saying I’d lost my job,” Ms Jayasuriya said.

As well as “sadness” Ms Jayasuriya said she felt “betrayal” and accused the billion-dollar institution of making no attempt to save her livelihood.

The rise of insecure work has coincided with a decade of record revenues and the consequences of that trend are only being felt now the sector is facing its first downturn.

Universities Australia said the 39 public universities faced a combined revenue loss of between $3 billion and $4.6 billion from the fall in international students on the back of COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Ms Jayasuriya said she felt exploited and expendable and was moving to a new industry.

“I also don’t want to work there anymore,” she said. “It has left a really sour taste for me as it has for many of my colleagues.”

Deakin University estimates it expects to lose at least $250 million in revenue next year and is making 300 permanent staff redundant.

Part of long-term trend

Professor Frank Larkin from the University of Melbourne is a former senior university manager and chemistry specialist as well as an analyst of his own sector’s finances.

He said the push to casualisation came after a decade where the Federal Government required universities to look elsewhere for revenue, with universities fearful it would fluctuate.

After a decade of near continuous growth billions are now being slashed from budgets.

“I guess universities have been a bit conservative [with budgets], because those markets can be a bit fickle,” Professor Larkin said.

“Its [revenue from overseas students] is a little different to that secure government grant funding. I think that’s partly what’s driven the flexibility [in the workforce].”

Professor Larkin said it had been damaging for staff morale.

“By the time academic staff reach the point of [teaching and research] most of them now would be expected to have a PhD,” he said.

Professor Larkin believed the Federal Government’s latest funding reforms around degree pricing would only worsen that trend.

Universities Australia declined to comment on the casualisation of the workforce, instead directing the ABC to the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association which defended not publishing staff data in states other than Victoria.

Universities supply information to the Federal Department but there is a 12-month delay in publishing the casual stats.

Executive Director Stuart Andrews said it was not clear how many casual staff had lost their jobs.

“There would be a significant number, though, given there are thousands of international students who have been unable to commence their university studies,” Mr Andrews said

Unions who spoke to the ABC said they would like to see more job security and were discussing this as part of working groups set up by the Federal Government.

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