The Australian higher education industry has suffered from sustained and regular cuts over the years. The Australian higher education and research system is largely funded through Government research schemes and teaching grants, which have diminished over time. In 1999, the Australian Government provided 50% of Go8 revenue (excluding HECS). In comparison, the Australian Government provided only 35% of Go8 revenue by 2017, with only 24% of revenue recurrent. In 2017, Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal-National Coalition Government cut $2.1 billion from university funding, and again in 2018 the Coalition, led by Turnbull, slashed $328.5 million in research funding. In 2019, Scott Morrison’s Coalition Government repurposed $3.9 billion research infrastructure fund away from universities. Universities are currently facing a funding freeze, dating back to 2018.
Income from international students became of increasing importance in supplementing lost research and teaching funding. This has been a successful endeavour—higher education has consistently been Australia’s third-largest export industry, injecting $32.4 billion into the economy. In South Australia, higher education is the state’s number one export. In Victoria, international education has been the largest services export industry for over a decade. Domestic students also carry a large share of the industry. In the past two decades, the share of the Australian population that hold a bachelor degree or above has more than tripled, and the number of students from low socio-economic backgrounds has increased by more than 60% in the past decade. There are 40 Australian universities, all of which generate research, teaching, and contribute to the Australian economy. Go8 universities alone contribute $66.4 billion each year to the economy.
Universities directly employ 130,000 full-time equivalent staff, and the actual rate of employment per person is higher, as it includes casual, fixed term, and part-time staff. This figure doesn’t include workers such as cleaners, researchers, and maintenance staff, who are often supplied by external organisations. Universities are also significant employers in regional towns such as Armidale, Ballarat, Bathurst, and Newcastle. According to Universities Australia, ‘The sector contributes more than $2 billion each year to Australia’s regional economies, and sustains in excess of 14,000 regional jobs’. The impact of coronavirus on the higher education sector is already being felt in regional Australia—Central Queensland University will close three teaching sites in regional Queensland and lose nearly 200 workers. This has dire implications for regional communities where employment is already relatively scarce. The loss of 182 jobs across three communities will have a deep and lasting impact, going beyond the academics who lost work.
Successive Federal Governments cutting university budgets and suffocating research funding meant that universities had to become reliant on international student enrolments. But the higher education industry’s reliance on revenue from international students all came to a crashing halt with coronavirus. Emergency measures put in place to mitigate the virus’s spread resulted in restricted international movement. Many international students postponed or cancelled their enrolment in Australian institutions. An estimated $2 billion in fees are potentially lost as international students are unable to travel to Australia to (re-)commence their studies. With these enrolment rates dropping, universities face a grim future, many projected to lose hundreds of millions of dollars each and the industry as a whole projected to lose around $19 billion. With institutions facing deep losses, at least 30,000 jobs are on the line.
Despite this strain on Australia’s third largest export industry, the Australian Government has been reluctant to offer universities a lifeline. In the wake of coronavirus, hundreds of thousands of Australians lost jobs. In an attempt to mitigate these losses, the Australian Federal Government passed a $130 billion support package and instituted a ‘JobKeeper’ Payment. The JobKeeper scheme functions as a temporary subsidy for businesses that are significantly affected by coronavirus, allowing them to keep workers employed. Instead of allowing universities to quality for the program, thus potentially preventing thousands of job losses, the Australian Government changed JobKeeper rules three times to exclude universities.
In essence, universities, which are not-for-profit institutions, are not entitled to the lower threshold applied to charities. While businesses and charities can calculate their losses over one month or one quarter in order to qualify, universities are required to show a decline from 1 January to 30 June. According to The Guardian: ‘On 24 April the government ruled that universities must count commonwealth grants funding towards their revenue, and on 30 April that they must count six months of revenue when calculating their projected downturn, rather than one month or three as for other institutions. Together these restrictions mean no university qualifies for JobKeeper’.
Excluding universities from JobKeeper means thousands of casual, fixed-term, contract, part- and full-time academics face imminent job losses without the safety net extended to so many others. This is a significant portion of the higher-education workforce. The number of precariously employed academics, mostly employed on a casual basis, is estimated at 70% of teaching staff in some universities.
Another reason casual academics are excluded from JobKeeper is because employees are required to demonstrate more than 12-months continuous employment with an organisation that has lost between 30-50% of its revenue. Casual and contract academics, who are mostly teaching staff, are often employed on a semester-by-semester basis. Because contracts are issued before (or at times even during) the teaching term, it is impossible to demonstrate continuous employment. This is despite the fact that casuals can work with the same—or across several—institutions for years. The Government’s decision is devastating to a workforce of thousands of educators, researchers, and professional staff.
The multiple attempts by the Federal Government to exclude universities from JobKeeper indicate to us that this decision is deliberate. It is cruel to the affected workers and their families, and follows a long and demonstrable trend of Governments starving universities of funding, schemes, and grants. The Government wants you to believe that universities have brought this situation on themselves: over-reliance on international students (who pay higher fees than domestic students for the same degree) is universities’ downfall. However, we must never forget that consistent and successive government funding freezes and budget cuts have forced the sector to look for funding elsewhere.
It is important to remember that working conditions are also learning conditions. The Federal Government’s denial of support impacts not only educators, researchers, librarians, and other workers, but also students—current and future. Because the Government has ignored the higher education sector’s urgent need for funding, thousands of workers are facing significant pay cuts, which will barely put a dent in projected university losses. Educators are demoralised, tired, and scared. The future of Australia’s higher education system—and with it, your children’s education—is at stake. Full-time staff are already being asked to take on work previously performed by casual staff, who are the first workers sacrificed by cost-saving Vice Chancellors. This means that staff have less time to dedicate to quality teaching, many will teach in areas out of their expertise, and despite their best efforts the student experience will suffer.
May 21 is the tertiary education sector’s day of action, when we call on the Government to send our sector a lifeline. The Liberal Government should put aside its vehement dislike of higher education and include us in vital support measures such as JobKeeper. Thousands of jobs are at stake. The future of education and research is at stake. The higher education sector is facing a dire future, and it is incumbent on all of us to stand in solidarity and ask the Government to help secure thousands of jobs, as it has done for so many other businesses and charities.
 The Group of Eight (Go8) comprises Australia’s leading research-intensive universities – the University of Melbourne, the Australian National University, the University of Sydney, the University of Queensland, the University of Western Australia, the University of Adelaide, Monash University and UNSW Sydney.
Na’ama Carlin is a sociologist, writer, and academic. You can follow on Twitter @derridalicious