Higher ed policies drive layoffs and cuts in the UK, Australia and Canada

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Universities in the UK, Australia and Canada have announced staff layoffs and course suspensions as government policies limiting international student numbers cause increasing financial strain.

Fifty-five UK universities have now confirmed staff redundancies due to falling international student numbers and declining real-terms value of domestic tuition fees.

New data for the beginning of 2024 shows that the number of individuals intending to enter the UK using a study visa has reached record levels since the pandemic, falling by 27% in two years.

In this time, government policies removed the rights of taught masters students to bring dependents, raised the visa charge and increased the health surcharge, dampening the UK’s appeal for prospective students and reducing an important income stream for cash-strapped universities.

The recent increase in the skilled worker visa minimum salary threshold and the ongoing review of the Graduate route visa are causing further uncertainty for international students and institutions, leading Universities UK to issue a warning that almost half of prospective students say they would reconsider their study destination if the graduate route was curtailed.

Such a projection is particularly pertinent after a report this year found that 80% of higher education providers could fall into deficit if there is a gradual or sudden drop in international students.

“The government is intent on attacking migrants and harming universities, but it is scandalous that university managers are willing to destroy the livelihoods of their staff based on mere projections of future international recruitment levels,” University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady told The PIE.

“Cuts of the scale being threatened at universities including Goldsmiths, Lincoln and Sheffield Hallam will devastate local economies and cause long-term harm to key British industries like the creative arts.

“Our members refuse to stand by while university bosses try to force through academic vandalism on this scale and are balloting to save higher education.”

The University and College Union branch at Queen Mary University of London has set up a live tracking page of redundancies and restructures across the sector.

As of April 30, 55 institutions have confirmed cuts, with several thousand academic and administrative posts forecast to be lost in the coming months.

Goldsmiths University of London has attracted considerable media attention for its “incomprehensible” proposal to cut 132 posts, amounting to 25% of total university staff.

The layoffs would lead to almost half the academics in the schools of arts and humanities, culture and society, professional studies and science and technology losing their jobs.

“We’re talking about 132 people’s livelihoods, some of them are single parents, some of them are the sole bread winner for the family, so it’s a pretty awful time,” Catherine Rottenberg, GUCU executive committee member told The PIE.

“We’re talking about 132 people’s livelihoods”

The proposed cuts have sparked widespread criticism from well-known alumni including author Bernadine Evaristo speaking out against axing the world’s first ever masters degree in Black British literature.

Goldsmiths’ UCU members voted in favour of strike action and the university has said that any staff participating in the marking boycott which began on April 19 will face a 50% reduction in their salary for May and June, followed by a 100% salary cut.

“Universities across the country are facing difficult challenges borne of a funding system that is widely acknowledged to be no longer fit for purpose,” a spokesperson for Goldsmiths told The Guardian.

However, according to Rottenberg, Goldsmiths’ voluntary severance scheme and hiring freeze from September – November 2024 managed to recoup a £10.1 million deficit, reducing the university shortfall to approximately £3 million and dissipating the financial imperative for the layoffs.

“Yes, the sector is in a bad way, but this is not about the state of the sector. The union’s financial analyst has found that not only has Goldsmiths been able to recoup what they needed in order to be on relatively stable financial grounds, but that the cuts are more about wanting to double their capital investment over the next year,” said Rottenburg.

Australia

Policy changes in Australia are creating a similarly volatile environment for international student recruitment, leading to widespread university revenue loss and growing concerns about courses and jobs being axed.

“At a sector level the total number of new visa grants is still reasonably high. But visa grant rates are falling for some universities and source countries, which will cause immediate revenue loss compared to what was budgeted,” Andrew Norton, higher education policy professor at the Australian National University, told The PIE News.

“I expect that during 2024 many universities are likely to announce job cuts, with further staff reductions through not replacing people who resign or renewing people on fixed term contracts.”

Delays in visa processing and rising rejection rates have had an immediate impact on international enrolment in Australia as the Albanese government seeks to reduce net migration.

In a recent survey from IDP Education, the US took the “pole position” in the eyes of international students, ahead of Australia, the UK and Canada for the first time.

Australia’s changing policy environment is causing the largest volume of prospective students to reconsider their study abroad plans, with 8.9% looking for alternative destinations or reconsidering study abroad completely, the report found.

Federation University in Victoria was one of the first to announce last month that it would layoff 200 FTE staff to save $20 million, in what experts say could be a broader trend of sector-wide cuts.

Federation is one of the smallest public universities in the country and has recorded a 49% drop in international student enrolment, causing $79 million worth of losses since 2019.

Just 384 new overseas students have so far enrolled for 2024, 8% of 2019 levels.

“We’ve had mass redundancies every year since 2020 so it’s been a period of constant change, constant restructuring and turmoil, but staff thought that things were on the up, so we were really blindsided by the sheer scale of the layoffs,” Mathew Abbott, National Tertiary Education Union president told The PIE.

“One of the shocking and distressing things about it is that they haven’t said where they intend to apply the cuts, only that a handful of research academics are safe, so almost the entire so called ‘secure workforce’ is up for redundancy,” he said.

Federation is the only public university to have the highest risk rating from the Department of Homeland for enrolling too many non-genuine students, which the university said is due to it being targeted by fraudulent providers and agents.

The university’s management maintains that Federation’s risk rating hasn’t impacted on international student revenue, a claim that Abbott finds “implausible”.

“We don’t think the people in senior leadership positions understand the implications of this proposal for our institution. The negative impact it’s going to have on staff, certainly, but also on our ability to retain students. The proposal actually stands to exacerbate the revenue problems that our institution faces.”

The union also disputes claims from the acting vice chancellor Liam Sloan that the university’s issues are “sector wide” and “not down to any one individual”.

“It’s problematic the way management tries to frame this as something purely external … this problem of international student revenue is quite real but that is the result of decisions made at the very top to make international students the basis of our financial viability in the face of concerns about the volatility of that market.

“Of course, no one could predict the pandemic, but it was highly risky for Australian universities to put all their eggs in this basket that’s subject to the whims of foreign governments and immigration law,” said Abbott.

“It was highly risky for Australian universities to put all their eggs in this basket that’s subject to the whims of foreign governments and immigration law”

Canada

There are concerns about similar cost-saving measures occurring in Canada in the wake of the federal cap on international study visas and the crackdown on public-private partnerships.

The first of such announcements have come from Fleming public College of applied arts and technology in Ontario, which confirmed on April 24 the suspension of 29 courses due to start in fall 2024.

Nearly 30% of Fleming’s students are international. College president Maureen Adamson told Global News that federal policy changes had caused a significant reduction in the university’s budget, having a “profound impact on college operations”.

Suspensions will take place across a range of subjects spanning environmental conservation, business and marketing management. Adamson said that labour market demand, regional needs and demographics also had an impact on program changes.

Ontario is Canada’s most populous province with 530 designated learning institutions, according to the IRCC. Last month, it announced that 96% of its 235,000 study permits from the federal government would go to public universities, meaning that very few private institutions in Ontario will be able to accept international students.

Following the announcement of the cap, an organisation of private language schools in Canada issued a statement encouraging international students to continue to choose Canada, noting that those coming on TRVs or ETAs, as well as through the International Experience Canada work visa, are not subject to the cap and will benefit from faster visa processing.

The post Higher ed policies drive layoffs and cuts in the UK, Australia and Canada appeared first on The PIE News.

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