University of Melbourne reveals 450 job losses as COVID-19 creates revenue hit, drop in international students

University of Melbourne reveals 450 job losses as COVID-19 creates revenue hit, drop in international students

Australia’s richest tertiary institution, the University of Melbourne, has become the latest Australian university to announce widespread job losses, telling staff it will axe 450 permanent staff.

It comes as the ABC on Thursday obtained an internal document from this year showing the university had budgeted $4.2 billion dollars on capital works over the next decade — a figure that has been criticised by some of the university’s staff.

Speaking to the ABC on Thursday, the University of Melbourne’s chief operating officer Allan Tait said that budget was prepared prior to COVID-19.

He said that had since been trimmed.

“Already, as a result of the pandemic the university has deferred $330 million of capital expenditure planned for 2020,” Mr Tait said.

“Capital expenditure for 2021 and beyond is being reviewed and will be significantly cut back.”

Yet some academics at the university — many of who are facing job losses — went to social media to vent their anger.

Criminology professor Alison Young said the university was opting to “construct or renovate buildings in preference to retaining staff”.

She said the capital works budget made her feel “ill”.

A close up of the University of Melbourne coat of arms.
The University of Melbourne has 72.9 per cent of its staff in insecure work.(ABC News: Patrick Stone)

In the job losses announcement released on Wednesday afternoon, the university said it expected to lose $1 billion in revenue over the next three years as the sector’s hopes for a swift return of lucrative international students — particularly in Victoria — became more remote.

“The decision to reduce the size of the university’s workforce has been a last-resort measure to combat the financial crisis caused by COVID-19,” vice-chancellor Professor Duncan Maskell said.

The details of which faculties will lose staff and whether redundancies will be forced or voluntary won’t be revealed until the middle of next month.

An unknown number of casual and fixed-term staff will also lose work.

Academic and professional staff will be affected.

“This is an extremely difficult decision at a challenging time for our community,” Professor Maskell said.

“It affects many dedicated and hard-working staff members who have worked tirelessly for the university, especially over the last six months.”

The vice-chancellor’s announcement came on the same day an ABC investigation revealed the university had accepted liability for “wage theft” claims, which the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) said could be as high as $6 million .

A building on the University of Melbourne campus.
The NTEU said cutting jobs should be the “absolute last option”.(ABC News: Patrick Stone)

The university’s balance sheet leads Australia’s university sector, topping both revenues and reserves — which stand at about $4.5 billion.

The university has previously said much of its reserves were “committed” through endowments, capital projects, research and “employee entitlements”.

The institution, which receives almost $1 billion a year from philanthropists alone, had almost 24,000 international students enrolled last year.

Professor Maskell said management would continue to consult with staff about the changes.

The NTEU described the sackings as “appalling”.

It said it should be paused while a review of finances took place.

“We are deeply sceptical when Australia’s richest university cries poor and claims its only option is to cut 5 per cent of its workforce,” NTEU president Alison Barnes said.

“Cutting jobs should be the absolute last option, yet it is clearly the first impulse of university management.”