La Trobe Uni to cut 300 more jobs, laments ‘unsympathetic’ government

Staff at La Trobe University have been told the university will shed another 250 to 300 full-time equivalent jobs this year, potentially taking the total number of lost jobs at the beleaguered institution past 500.

University vice-chancellor John Dewar also lamented to staff in a meeting on Wednesday that the Morrison government was largely unsympathetic to the university sector’s plight, despite the loss of billions of dollars and thousands of jobs.

La Trobe University Credit:Erin Jonasson

In candid comments about the tense relationship between universities and the Coalition, Professor Dewar said the federal government “thinks it is our fault we are reliant on international student revenue”.

“They think we are naive about foreign interference, particularly from China; and think we don’t take issues of freedom of speech or academic freedom seriously enough.”

Professor Dewar’s comments were leaked to The Age. He later clarified that he was arguing that universities had to work to improve the Morrison government’s views of the university sector.

“I don’t think they’re right obviously, but we have to get better at addressing those perceptions,” he said.

La Trobe University vice-chancellor Professor John Dewar says the university will shed 250 to 300 full-time equivalent jobsCredit:AFR

Universities were denied access to JobKeeper subsidies and have shed 17,000 jobs since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to estimates by Universities Australia.

La Trobe was one of a handful of universities that signed on to the Jobs Protection Framework last year, an agreement struck with the National Tertiary Education Union in which staff accepted temporary pay cuts in exchange for a reduced number of redundancies.

Staff took pay cuts of 5 to 10 per cent, saving an estimated 225 jobs last year, although 239 staff took voluntary redundancy.

Professor Dewar wrote to staff before Wednesday’s meeting to inform them that the university would withdraw from the framework, and that staff would receive a mid-year pay rise.

He also told them on Wednesday that the university must find a further $50 million in savings to pull through the COVID-19 downturn.

La Trobe faces a revenue downturn of about $170 million this year, compared with its pre-COVID projections.

Professor Dewar said the “continued delay in the reopening of international borders” was doing huge damage to the university’s finances.

“We expect our revenue downturn for 2021 will be much greater than it was last year – about $170m compared to pre-COVID forecasts – because of the non-arrival of successive cohorts of international students,” he said in a note to returning staff this week.

He also told staff the university had been relatively unsuccessful in attracting fee-paying postgraduate students in recent years, and would look to “reconfigure” course offerings and build closer links with TAFEs.

The university has reported an operating deficit of $9.5 million for 2020. In 2019, Latrobe had 3338 full-time equivalent staff. The latest cuts will see that number reduced by about 15 per cent.

Sarah Roberts, the assistant secretary of the Victorian division of the NTEU, said the loss of university jobs was a national crisis deserving of greater attention.

“If this was happening in manufacturing the whole government would grind to a halt but because it is higher education somehow there is this perception that we are privileged workers in some regard,” Ms Roberts said.

She said the government should initiate an inquiry into how universities have managed their finances during the pandemic.

“We’re not looking for government to intervene in the affairs of universities but simply for taxpayers to understand how their dollars are being spent,” Ms Roberts said. “If you found this need to cut and cut and cut in the corporate sector, you’d have to ask questions if you were a shareholder.”

In recent months the Morrison government has overhauled fee structures for domestic university students and introduced a “model code” on free speech for universities to adopt.

It has also initiated an inquiry into national security risks affecting the Australian higher education and research sector.

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