Future vaccination research under pressure as universities cut jobs

Researchers are being laid off or forced into other areas of work. (Photo: Flickr, KAUST official)

Job losses hitting casual teaching staff in the university sector are forcing researchers to stop clinical work and teach, putting Australia’s vaccine program at risk after 2022.

COVID-19 and lack of government support have put pressure on the education sector with Universities Australia expecting 21,000 job losses by the end of the year. Underfunding, border closures and ineligibility for JobKeeper have further impacted the sector.

Trent Munro, from the University of Queensland, which is at the forefront of finding a COVID-19 vaccine, thinks universities are being overlooked.

“Universities are driving much of the underpinning research that is helping the fight against COVID-19 from public health policy, epidemiology and treatments or vaccines,” he said.

He said the result will be a decline in the overall capability of Australian university research.

“My concern is that without the right type of bridging support we could see deep impacts to Australia’s future research capabilities,” he said.

“Which will in turn directly impact our capabilities to respond to future challenges – pandemics or otherwise.”

The National Liberal Party believe they support education in Australia and stand by their contribution to the sector.

Media adviser to Education Minister Dan Tehan says the NLP assist those that work in universities.

The University of NSW. Source: Flickr, Eddie Yang.

“Funding for universities will increase by $2 billion to 2024,” he said.

“Universities are eligible for JobKeeper in the same way as any other business in Australia.

“They can access JobKeeper if they can demonstrate a 30 per cent reduction in revenue, or a 50 per cent reduction if turnover is over $1 billion.”

But Australia’s public universities are currently ineligible because they must show a drop of revenue over six months, rather than over one month or one-quarter like other charities and businesses.

Michael Evans from the National Tertiary Education Union says the Liberal government made it very difficult for university employees to receive job keeper.

“The federal government changed the rules for JobKeeper three times to prevent Australian public university employees from accessing it,” he said.

Mr Evans thinks that research generally will be affected by the loss of university jobs.

“Both in terms of research jobs themselves, as well as the capacity of universities to cross-subsidise research activities from student income streams, and particularly international student income.”

For the present pandemic some academics believe that research is still a priority for the government.

Mark Warburton from Melbourne University says Australia has a strong focus on medical research and the emphasis on that appears to be supported by both governments and universities, regardless of JobKeeper.

 “I think Australia’s public universities continue to have a strong sense of social responsibility and would be supporting the relevant research teams at this time,” he said.

As far as JobKeeper is concerned Mr Warburton thinks the government has been unclear with the regulations for university employees to apply.

“The government put in place specific rules for JobKeeper which effectively resulted in public universities not getting any JobKeeper,” Mr Warburton said.

With the budget released last week, advocates for education still see a lack of encouragement from the government. Members of the NTEU believe the budget has amplified the governments war on universities.

Dr Alison Barnes, the national president of the NTEU says Australia should be a nation that invents things and the budget has almost wiped that ambition out.

“The $1 billion allocated in the budget for research, which won praise from obsequious university lobby groups and ingratiating vice-chancellors, is nothing more than spin and sugar,” Ms Barnes told The Australian.

“As Ian Marshman and Frank Larkins at Melbourne University have made clear, Australian universities face a $7.2 billion research funding shortfall due to the collapse of international student income.”

Union members state the budget announcement will allow some research programs to conclude but will not allow universities to give thousands of researchers the permanent jobs they require to conduct worthwhile research.

Those in the university sector see the support for research now we are in a pandemic but are nervous for the future.

Frank Larkins from Melbourne University says medical research, especially vaccine research, has received quite a lot of additional funding this year.

“My understanding is that colleagues do have sufficient money to retain their staff in this essential area of research at least for 2020-21,” he said.