Deakin University has announced plans to lay off up to 220 workers as the tertiary education sector braces for a “second wave” of job cuts.
At a town hall conference on Tuesday, Deakin University Vice Chancellor Prof. Iain Martin announced a plan to cut between 180 and 220 jobs, citing rising staff costs and falling revenues, the latter greatly exacerbated by the pandemic.
While he said not all problems were caused by Covid-19, the vice-chancellor cited closed international borders, which prevented the influx of international students, as a key factor.
“It is now foreseeable that the faculty’s international student load will not return to pre-pandemic figures for the foreseeable future,” he is said to have told staff.
Deakin University has already suffered significant job losses during the pandemic, with about 400 jobs lost last year.
The chairman of the Deakin branch of the National Tertiary Education Union, Piper Rodd, said staff were “devastated” by news of more cuts.
“It was a surprise … but there was always a bit of hint that there could be a phase two in this process,” she said.
“This comes at a time when university staff are under enormous, unprecedented workload, time constraints, not to mention the advancing lockdowns that have hit us all over the past two years.”
Rodd said the move “represents a huge failure” by successive federal governments as well as university administration.
“The alleged rhetoric has always been, for the past two years, that it’s because of our heavy reliance on international students, which you know is partially true. But it goes to my broader point that the university administration has been complicit with governments in downgrading higher education and relying on the use of ‘cash cow’ international students, who have been treated really badly from this pandemic.
Staff were told there would be a two-week “consultation process” with the changes expected to be finalized by the end of the year.
In a statement to Age newspaper, Martin said the cuts were necessary to secure Deakin’s financial future.
“There is no doubt that this is an incredibly challenging time for both Deakin and the wider university sector in Australia,” said the Vice-Chancellor.
“What Deakin delivers matters. It matters to our students and staff, our local communities, Victoria and Australia, and through our many connections and networks it matters worldwide – now more than ever.”
National Tertiary Education Union president Alison Barnes said it’s likely more universities will follow in a “second round” of tertiary education staff redundancies.
“There’s a sense of those looming cutbacks at other universities … we’re concerned about the sector in general as that second wave of job losses looms,” she said. “We are fighting desperately hard to prevent [the second wave] and I think the federal government really needs to step in and make sure it’s not there.”
The higher education sector lost nearly 20,000 jobs during the pandemic, with institutions largely denied access to job seekers.
While Australia had some plans for a phased return of full-paying international students, many institutions suffered huge blows to their revenues when international borders closed.
“For higher education, for our universities, the Covid crisis does not end when vaccination rates reach a certain point,” Barnes said.
“There are long-term consequences for our universities and for the people who work and learn there.”
Guardian Australia has contacted Deakin University for comment.