Australian universities cut more than 17,300 jobs and lost $1.8b in revenues as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new figures highlighting the “brutal reality” of disruption that will challenge the country’s skills pipeline for years to come.

The job losses – which represent more than 13 per cent of the more than 130,000 academic and professional employees within the university sector – are in line with the experience of countries such as the United States, where reports suggested that over 480,000 workers, or around 10 per cent of the tertiary-education workforce, had been laid off and lower-paid staff were suffering the largest cuts.

A July survey of academic administrators in 53 countries found 12 per cent were planning redundancies for faculty members and staff, and 19 per cent anticipated standing down staff.

Australian universities are expected to lose a further $2b this year, according to an analysis by Universities Australia that found the “double whammy” of ongoing border closures not only hit institutions’ revenues last year but would continue for the foreseeable future.

“The cumulative impact won’t be felt just in 2020 and 2021 but for years to come,” Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said in announcing the figures.

“No sector can absorb revenue declines this large without staff losses,” she added, noting that universities have tried to stem the losses by pausing infrastructure projects, “making tough decisions about courses” and lining up further reductions that will likely take effect this year.

Despite their magnitude, those figures may understate the true impact of the pandemic on Australian universities, with union reports last year already suggesting that over 12,000 university staff had been laid off but many universities were “unable or unwilling” to release details of job losses.

Increased rates of insecure working arrangements and worker casualisation have been blamed for recasting university departments as “vast casual groupings” and one estimate suggested true job losses could be as high as 36,000.

Employees of public Australian universities have been unable to access the JobKeeper employment-support program, although four private universities managed to qualify and staff of New York University’s Sydney campus also received the financial support.

Funding the standing army

The savage staffing cuts – which had accumulated throughout the year as the pandemic’s full implications became clear – will affect Australia’s “knowledge reservoir”, Jackson said, noting that universities “are central to national recovery” and “provide the ‘standing army’ of research capability that can tackle the challenges and seize the opportunities.”

The size and diversity of that army has taken a major hit, with international student numbers down precipitously and ongoing restrictions expected to keep them out of Australia for much of this year or longer.

This rapid shift has hit the education ecosystem hard, with billions in tuition fees dwarfed by the more than $30 billion that international students spend on goods and services each year.

Even student accommodation providers are suffering, with one student-housing provider reporting a new $100m Melbourne accommodation site is all but empty.

The diminished student pipeline, paired with a scaled-back roster of courses, has long-term implications for Australia’s workforce, as well as its ability to lean on skills to pivot away from the pandemic’s economic damage.

COVID-19 wasn’t the only force affecting university budgets last year, with a dramatic overhaul of government funding intended to direct students to the “jobs of the future” and an increased focus on vocational training designed to help the economy bootstrap itself after the pandemic’s disruption.

Universities’ position as wellsprings of innovation made them soft targets as the pandemic’s devastation turned off a significant revenue stream that had helped institutions counter successive governments’ wan support for innovation.

After two decades of measured growth in research grants, government support for business R&D through the R&D Tax Incentive (RDTI) program had dropped by 42 per cent in real terms in the eight years to 2020 – until the Morrison government finally relented in October with a range of targeted industry investments that reversed planned cuts.

That funding won’t save universities single-handedly but, as Jackson said, “it is an important acknowledgement that the jobs of the future are created by R&D, and that universities are central to national recovery.”