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Australia: international education staff redundancies a concern

Australia’s higher education sector has been feeling the heat with the Covid-19 induced border closures for over 18-20 months. Now stakeholders have warned that many experienced and well performing staff in admissions, student mobility, and exchange functions have had to switch to other sectors as a result.

ISANA is calling on the federal government to lead a coordinated approach to help the sector rebound. Photo: pexels

"There is also increasing concern that the staff who manage to retain their jobs will become overly stretched"

Speaking to The PIE, Gabrielle Rolan, pro vice chancellor, international, at the University of South Australia said that the decline in international student numbers since 2019 has led to some universities facing high revenue losses and as a result they have had to resort to a range of cost cutting measures, including staff redundancy.

“Areas that took the first cut have been across global student mobility, admissions, as well as recruitment”

Australian universities’ funding models relied to a large degree on earnings made from international student fees, and revenue falls of over 2 billion in 2020 and over 40,000 jobs, one-in-five, have been lost.

“The catalyst for this has really been around fiscal issues,” Rishen Shekhar, deputy director, international business development, UniSA, told The PIE.

“The reductions have been across the universities, from casual academic staff through to administrators. Areas that we’ve seen many universities take the first cut, in particular, have been across global student mobility, admissions, as well as recruitment.”

Shekhar pointed out that “high quality staff from the international education sector are now leaving the sector”.

“So there is a brain drain issue there, that I think is of concern,” Shekhar added.

It’s a concern that is shared by Phil Honeywood, CEO of the International Education Association of Australia.

“There are two key concerns,” he said. “At one level it is, of course, the potential permanent loss of specialist staff to other industries. But there is also increasing concern that the staff who manage to retain their jobs will become overly stretched.

“This will cause major challenges particularly if student returns suddenly take off again.”

There are also concerns the sector has been left out from the federal government’s support packages.

“It was very disappointing that the Commonwealth government singled out the universities as being the only sector that wouldn’t get JobKeeper,” Ian Watt, deputy vice chancellor and vice-president (International) at University of Technology Sydney, observed.

“So we could have stopped [redundancies] from happening. It is clear that universities are losing very capable staff.”

Speaking to The PIE, Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson highlighted higher education job losses “illustrate the scale of the multi-year challenges faced by our universities”.

“Every loss undoes the hard work that would otherwise go on to benefit Australians, whether that’s educating our future leaders, building our modern workforce or making the discoveries that save people’s lives.”

UTS has had to let go over 300 staff through its voluntary separation scheme, Watt added, while the UniSA also opted for an early retirement scheme, “as most universities did”, Rolan detailed.

“That was a way of reducing staff load,” Rolan stated. “And also, when we had a natural vacancy that came up, in UniSA International, we didn’t fill it unless essential. We made the call, we won’t fill it, because we could repurpose staff across the unit. So, we have dropped staffing numbers as well, but it hasn’t been through forced redundancies.”

Fortunately the university had just finished a large building program, and had commenced large scale academic organisational restructure, Rolan continued.

“So, the time at which Covid struck, we actually carried no debt, leaving us in a positive position. We also had come off the back of a several years of large international student growth, including in 2020, in the first semester.”

The vice-chancellor’s priority was to preserve and protect jobs first, she added.

“That really meant tightening the belt financially, for everything else. What we call at our university, the ‘prudent measures’ got us to this point. So our cliff phase has taken a longer time to get to, than perhaps some of the other institutions. And, we just made the decision that the only thing we can do is to service our students, our agents, our partners, to the best of our ability and that’s what we have continued to do.”

At UTS, Watt pointed out that in order to successfully cope with the challenge, “one of the first responses was to slow down or postpone investments in property and infrastructure and increase our capacity to borrow”, while viewing the situation as “a temporary downturn”.

“We’ve always had to keep in mind that quite soon we’re going to have to scale back up”

“We’ve always had to keep in mind that quite soon we’re going to have to scale back up,” he said.

“We are going to need to be able to get good academic and professional staff on board again, in the not too distant future. So we’ve done our best to ensure that we are well placed to recruit new staff as soon as things bounce back.

“I am quite optimistic that there are plenty of excellent people out there who want to come to UTS and I presume to other universities as well.”

President of ISANA International Education Association Bronwyn Gilson said that federal government needed to lead a coordinated approach from all stakeholders to help the sector rebound.

“Going forward there needs to be a joint strategy to encourage international students to regain confidence in Australian higher education from all levels of government, business, community groups and universities.

“No one could have predicted the last 20 months, but ISANA is confident the Australian higher education sector can rebuild as a stronger and most importantly, a student centric industry.”

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