Thousands of jobs added in Australian university sector

Strong staffing increase in research-intensive institutions points to an uneven post-Covid recovery

September 20, 2023
Businessman holding contract of employment

Australian university staff numbers have recovered somewhat from their coronavirus-induced plunge, in the latest sign that the sector is putting the pandemic behind it.

Newly released Department of Education statistics show that last year universities clawed back around one-third of the 9,000-plus continuing and contract jobs they had lost in the first year of Covid-19, as employment rebounded to about 124,000 in 2022.

Australian National University analyst Andrew Norton said the recovery had been strongest in large research-intensive universities enriched by Chinese students’ tuition fees. UNSW Sydney and the universities of Melbourne and Queensland each boosted their staff numbers by 500 or more, while Sydney and Monash universities grew by about 300. “[They are] back in an expansion phase,” Professor Norton said.

He said that most other universities had registered “very small” increases in their headcounts, with a few marginally reducing their staff numbers. “It’s not a uniform picture, and of course we’ve had ACU [Australian Catholic University] announcing more job cuts in the last week or so.”

Other data sources have likewise pointed to a recovery in university staffing. A Jobs and Skills Australia “dashboard” shows that monthly online advertisements for lecturers and tutors reached about 500 in late 2022 – roughly double the pre-pandemic levels – before peaking at almost 600 in April 2023.

The boost in employment coincides with the continuing growth of international enrolments. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that 100,000 foreign higher education students arrived in the country this July, twice as many as in July 2022 and just 4 per cent less than the pre-pandemic peak.

University hiring could be bolstered by additional funds from domestic students, with tuition fees to be indexed by 7.8 per cent next year – the result of generation-high inflation – although this windfall could be offset by declining enrolments.

The education department statistics show that the number of teaching-only academics rose by 8 per cent in 2022, in keeping with recent years’ trends. Research-only jobs fell by 1 per cent, while casual employment is estimated to have risen by 2 per cent – a result Professor Norton described as “surprisingly flat”.

He said an increase of more than 2 per cent in the number of research-active teaching academics was also a surprise, after the removal of research funding from domestic teaching grants.

The proportion of non-academic staff at Australian universities rose by more than 1 percentage point in 2022 to over 56 per cent, after falling by a similar margin in 2021.

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