This year my partner and my brother both left our university jobs. They are part of a nation-wide changing of the guard at most universities in Australia and many overseas.
Over 17,000 Australian university jobs disappeared in 2020, Universities Australia estimated. It predicted more to come. By May this year, an estimated one in five positions in higher education had been lost, according to an Australia Institute analysis.
Universities have lost billions in revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic. They saw no alternative to reducing the biggest expense on their books: staff salaries.
Some academics have left with a smile on their face. They are the ones who were able to take advantage of early retirement, voluntary redundancy or voluntary separation schemes backed by enterprise agreements. Universities such as ANU, Monash, UQ, Griffith, USC, UNSW, Macquarie, Canberra and others offered generous payments to entice staff to exit, reducing their total headcount.
Other departures weren’t so voluntary. Several universities, including Melbourne, UWA, QUT, CQU and others, have made staff redundant in specific areas, sometimes through multiple rounds.
To minimise disruption, professional staff who hold service or support roles have been prioritised for cuts. This is a tough sell, especially when their expertise is so valuable with the rapid shift to online learning, increases in students’ peripheral support needs, and new processes brought about by organisational restructures.
Other elephants in the room are now looming large, including unmanageable workloads, increasing administrative burdens, deteriorating working conditions, unhealthy work practices during lockdown (and arguably outside lockdown too). It is no wonder many academics are contemplating whether they still want their jobs.
If you’re considering whether you are better off outside university jobs, the grass may not be greener on the other side. First, ask yourself three key questions.
1. Is your role secure?
Alarmingly, up to three-quarters of staff in several universities are on casual or fixed-term contracts. Even before COVID-19, the higher education sector was criticised for the mass casualisation of its workforce. In defence, this trend is being seen across Australia as employers increasingly look to manage overheads in pursuit of economic efficiencies.
Unfortunately, casual academics have also been the hardest hit by COVID-related impacts on universities. This includes their unrecognised (and therefore unpaid) hours of work required to set up online courses and support business continuity.
There is hope: there are calls to transfer casual staff to fixed-term or continuing positions. Anecdotally, executive staff are hearing these calls. Some universities are investigating their options to recognise the work casuals do through flexible but more secure employment arrangements.
Academics in continuing positions may feel lucky, and let’s not forget their employer-provided superannuation is nearly twice as generous as in most other industries. When considering jobs in other sectors, be aware they may not offer generous leave provisions for academics. This includes longer-than-typical sick leave, parental leave, recreational leave and long-service leave.
2. Is the flexibility of university jobs worth the workload?
Ask any academic whether they have enough time to complete the work their role requires of them; the answer will be a firm “No”. Unmanageable workloads pose a serious risk to mental health. However, “success” in an academic career typically requires individuals to defy the odds when it comes to producing high-volume, high-quality work.
Early-career academics usually feel overwhelmed by such an expectation. It can drive them to leave the industry. In response to this challenge, academic workload models now exist in many universities, despite concerns raised overseas about their value in improving working conditions.
Flexible working conditions are a great benefit of academic work. COVID-19 has resulted in other industries realising the value of supporting staff to “work from anywhere”. It has meant many academics have continued to earn while in lockdown, a privilege not afforded to all Australians.
But, as with all adults who are increasingly working from home, juggling the load along with housework and schooling from home challenges us all – arguably even more so women.
3. Can you still pursue your intellectual passions?
A deep commitment to scholarship draws people to academia. A genuine passion for a discipline, field or topic also lays the foundation for a career dedicated to pursuing new knowledge and having an impact. These rewarding aspects of academia can seem hidden at present, especially when academics need to focus their efforts on other urgent, reactive tasks.
Some academics have opportunistically pivoted into COVID-19 related research. The pandemic has sparked a new-found intellectual pursuit, backed by several COVID-targeted funding opportunities, including from the Medical Research Future Fund.
Universities undeniably benefit society at its core, particularly their endeavours to address societal challenges and foster positive change. However, they are not without their professional criticisms.
The coming years will bring further changes to the way education is delivered to communities, but must also bring innovative improvements that support and nurture academics to succeed in their work.
Correction: This article previously included La Trobe in a list of universities that had involuntary redundancies. La Trobe has now been removed from that list.
By Lauren Ball, Associate Professor and Principal Research Fellow, Menzies Health Institute, Griffith University