by: Ian Thomson
Earlier this month, The Australia Institute: Centre for Future Work released a report into higher education job losses in Australia related to the pandemic. Their headline number suggests the sector lost 39,200 jobs (36,600 EFT) in 2021, of which about 35,000 were from public universities. This represents almost 1 in 5 jobs in tertiary education in Australia.
The initial jobs lost to COVID in 2020 were predominantly casual and contract staff, but the impact in 2021 has been much greater for permanent and full-time positions. While the report suggests there will be a significant impact on the quality of education, I would also suggest the impact will be just as severe in key administrative areas.
The loss of knowledge, process management, and institutional memory is likely to have a huge impact on student administration, student support and student service. This is happening at a time when students seem to be becoming more and more dependent on staff contact to navigate the administration of a typical university.
Most universities should recognise the failures of the past where staff who remain have no choice but to do more with less, at least initially. But over time, the lack of investment in new processes and systems inevitably leads to new staff being rehired. Professional staff numbers return to somewhere near their old levels within one to two years, sometimes higher. The extra challenge being, of course, that so many staff are new, and the experience and knowledge have still been lost.
If university management wants to embed the savings and avoid the risk of a steady increase in support staff over the next 12 months, the path ahead is to invest now in improving procedures and systems. Some universities are recognising this and have started to implement effective system improvements.
Quite reasonably, this initial investment has been in process improvement and system implementation in areas where a reasonable return on investment can be realised – simplified admissions, simpler enrolment, improved timetabling, effective credit and RPL processing, effective Work Integrated Learning, reduced attrition, improved reporting, just to name a few.
These improvements in processes and systems have the double benefit of avoiding new hires while also delivering a financial upside in attracting more students, simplifying the process for students to get in, and helping to retain them.
Some universities have this in hand – others are being left behind.
If you are thinking of process improvement and system implementation for your institution, here are some tips to ensure your thinking is on the right track.