Business as Unusual at Australian Universities

The standard you walk past is the standard you accept

An unexpected feature of the year 2020 has been the advent of the armchair epidemiologist. It seems everyone from your postie to the guy who sits on the bench outside the newsagent has a theory on the Covid-19 pandemic – where it came from, how it spreads, the short and long term impacts. We have learnt to recite symptoms like a dire shopping list – coughing, sneezing, fever, extreme fatigue.

Like any major disaster, catastrophe, or whatever you might like to call this plot line of a B-grade horror/thriller movie, Covid has exposed the gaps in the mechanisms that keep Australia operating. From healthcare, to social services, to financial security and safe employment, it seems the pillars of our wide, brown land are beginning to crumble as we witness the harrowing struggles of those who fall between the cracks of our current system. What’s more, the destabilising wake of this pandemic has shone a harsh light on those in charge; those who prioritise financial dividends over the livelihoods of the people they employ. Sadly, universities are no exception to this.

Suddenly, Covid was no longer just a health concern, but a looming tsunami ready to crash over the tertiary sector

When the Federal Government made the decision earlier in the year to close Australia’s international borders in an effort to control the spread of Covid-19, it became clear any and all entities which depended on international business would be impacted. In the days after this declaration, with the prospect of international student admissions vanishing until at least the end of the year, the university sector projected a revenue loss of approximately $16 billion, and up to 21,000 jobs lost in the sector in an effort to survive this drastic veer into the red. Suddenly, Covid was no longer just a health concern, but a looming tsunami ready to crash over the tertiary sector; the path many young Australians understand to be the only road to employment and personal prosperity. These extraordinary projected figures also made clear what many who attend Australian universities – whether as students, academics, or employees – have already known; when universities shifted from publicly to privately operating entities, they began to divert from public institutions of development, learning and discovery, to businesses who have built and depend upon a revenue stream from the admission of international students. As noted in a recently published open letter by academics, universities became corporatized, and despite an effort to remain ‘publicly spirited’, have placed profit over people.

Despite an estimated $4 billion in cash reserves and the title of Australia’s wealthiest university, the University of Melbourne slashed 450 jobs in an effort to curb the impact of a projected $1 billion revenue loss over the next three years. The University of New South Wales, fearing up to $30-40 million in losses this year, terminated the contracts of 493 staff, while Monash University has cut 277 to square the ledger of a revenue shortfall of a projected $350 million.

Instead of preparing the lifeboats, universities have told their employees the only option is to jump ship

These are huge numbers. Swathes of academic and non-academic staff being told their services are no longer required. Told that universities can still operate without their contribution. Told that the education provided to students will be fundamentally similar to what they may have experienced before. They are told this because the finances make this true. The finances say that to stay afloat, universities must end the careers of however many hundreds of staff. Instead of preparing the lifeboats, universities have told their employees the only option is to jump ship, and hope that present and future students can reconcile with or outright ignore how this may impact the quality of education offered by these institutions.

But what are we sacrificing for this exercise in budget management? When these people are cut from the picture, what does the quality of an Australian tertiary education look like? This is a question we must ask relentlessly. This is a question we cannot let universities and politicians dodge and weave until it becomes politically convenient. We cannot accept that this corporatisation of universities is the natural progression for institutions created by and for inquiry, education, and freedom of thought. We cannot accept being handed a crumb while university councils sit before us eating piles of cake.

We must demand universities work to save the jobs of those in their employment, prioritise academic success and rigour over financial margins and dividends, and remind decision makers across the country that when universities and students miss out, the future of the country does too.

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