Mass job cuts throughout Australia’s university sector triggered by COVID-19 have left out-of-work academics armed with a wealth of knowledge and expertise but few job opportunities.
- Almost 14,000 jobs were cut at Australian universities between March and November 2020
- Academic Entrepreneur is one initiative that has emerged to help affected academics continue their work
- The startup and other programs have been deemed vital to ensure research can continue in Australia
The pandemic has accentuated the rigidity of academia, according to higher education and health delivery expert Susan Nancarrow.
“Academics are cultured into this thousand-year-old history that you just become a lecturer, you might become an associate professor then a professor,” she said.
The situation prompted the ex-Southern Cross University academic to partner with her former colleague Bill Sukala and begin a startup called Academic Entrepreneur (AE) to help the country’s brightest minds continue their work.
“You don’t have a professional title anymore, people don’t have a way of recognising who you are or where you’ve come from,” Dr Nancarrow said.
“So your role in society changes quite a lot.”
‘Big brain drain’
AE helps affected academics, from PhD graduates to seasoned professors, translate their specialist skills into other work in the private sector, at another university, or become self-employed.
Rural health researcher Cath Cosgrave saw the end of her university contract a year ago as an opportunity to learn things she was “never taught as an academic” and to start her own business.
AE is helping Dr Cosgrave make the most of her rural health expertise to establish her own consultancy working from home in Bellingen on the NSW Mid North Coast.
“I needed to transfer those skills into a consultancy business that had enough turnover to give me the living that I need,” she said.
The National Tertiary Education Union estimated nearly 14,000 jobs were cut across the nation’s tertiary institutions between March and November 2020, with fears more losses could follow.
The job cuts have exacerbated the pressure on an industry that is already highly competitive for jobs, particularly postgraduate positions.
It is among the reasons the Federal Government has committed $1 billion to propping up university research as part of its Job Ready Package for the higher education sector.
Dr Cosgrave said that without the government funding boost and initiatives like AE, the impact of COVID-19 could be worse, especially in the social sciences and humanities fields.
“I would imagine that most research would dry up in Australia and there would also be a big brain drain,” she said.
‘We can’t lose skills’
Dr Sukala said the pandemic should be a catalyst for academics to diversify their skill sets and share their knowledge beyond academic journals to help stem the spread of false information.
“Unfortunately, COVID-19 was a wake-up call,” he said.
The nation’s peak body for the science and technology sectors has supported and offered new initiatives to ailing academics during the pandemic.
Science and Technology Australia chief executive Misha Schubert said emerging startups have helped combat the challenge of getting Australians to understand and value research.
“That ability to see how we take research and discoveries and breakthroughs and turn them into products, services and jobs that help Australia,” Ms Schubert said.
“It’s really important that we don’t lose those skills, talents and expertise to the work of science in this country and for the world.”