15 July 2020

"The whole industry blown up under our feet": University of Wollongong staff await decision on job losses

| Elka Wood
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Emily Martin (right) and fellow graduate Dr Annie Werner (left) on their graduation day at University of Wollongong's Bega campus in 2016.

Emily Martin (right) and fellow graduate Dr Annie Werner (left) on their 2016 graduation day at University of Wollongong’s Bega campus. Photo: Supplied.

Up to 400 jobs are on the line as University of Wollongong (UOW) staff and management, including those at rural campuses in Bega and Batemans Bay, negotiate a disputed COVID-19 bailout plan represented by the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).

In early June, 2020, the university said it was facing a $90 million shortfall.

It surveyed staff, presenting them with three options to combat the downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two options involved different levels of salary cuts and job losses of between 150 and 200 staff. A third option was to maintain pay levels but accept significantly more job losses.

The unions launched a campaign urging members to support the third choice, in the hope it would force UOW back to the negotiating table to offer a more attractive option.

The union campaign made its point and the majority of staff selected option three.

In survey results released by the university, out of 2571 responses, 849 supported option one, 122 chose option two, and 1600 supported option three.

Emily Martin has been employed as a lab technician on a permanent part-time basis by the university nursing faculty in Bega for the past five years and is in her third year as a PhD student.

She said the past few months of negotiations have been nerve-racking, especially for the 27 casual staff employed at the UOW Bega campus.

“We’re all holding our breath until Wednesday [15 July] when the joint consultancy committee will make a final decision,” Emily says. “Most of the casuals are expecting not to have work next semester. Some faculties have already confirmed job losses, but there’s so much uncertainty.”

A statement from the university said the health, safety and wellbeing of students and staff is its priority, as well as preserving as much employment as possible.

“The pandemic has had an unprecedented financial impact on every part of our economy and brought permanent, far-reaching changes to higher education in Australia and globally,” said a UOW representative. “No university is immune, and doing nothing is not an option.”

Recent developments, including proposed changes to funding for arts degrees, have caused Emily and other academics to question their futures.

“It does feel like the whole industry just got blown up under our feet,” she says. “I think about my PhD and wonder, ‘Why am I doing this?'”

With the possibility of extreme job losses on the table, some staff at rural campuses are concerned that campus closures might be a possibility.

“UOW must also prepare for a post-COVID-19 world that is very different from the future we envisaged just months ago,” said the university’s representative. “With that comes the requirement to make extremely difficult decisions.”

Emily says that closing the Bega or Batemans Bay campuses would be especially tough after the past summer’s bushfires.

“Many students were personally affected by the fires and our staff are so committed to helping people regain a sense of normalcy. Our communities have so much need, and to take away the option of further study now would be a real blow.”

The UOW representative said no campus closures have been confirmed.

“At this stage, no decisions have been taken in relation to the future of the university’s regional campuses. Going forward, all options will remain on the table as we navigate these ongoing changes.”

Representatives from the University and the two unions were meeting yesterday to finalize the extent of job losses and pay cuts and it’s expected staff will be contacted this week with details of the deal.

For more information, visit the University of Wollongong website.

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