10 Sep 2020

Cash-strapped education sector facing widespread job losses

10:59 am on 10 September 2020

The loss of millions of dollars in fees from foreign students mean hundreds of jobs are at risk in the country's schools, universities and polytechnics.

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The Post Primary Teachers Association wants the government to stump up more money to save jobs. Photo: luckybusiness / 123RF

There are only about 50,000 foreign students in the country, less than half the normal number, and school principals and university leaders have told RNZ there could be widespread job losses within months because they are expecting even fewer students next year.

The downturn has already cost more than 250 jobs at private tertiary institutions and language schools where hundreds more are dependent on applications to a government support fund.

However, nobody has a clear picture of how many jobs across the education sector are directly dependent on international students' fees.

The president of the secondary teachers' union, the Post Primary Teachers Association, Jack Boyle, said schools were starting to talk about redundancies.

"There was one school from the South Island where the principal said 'I'm looking at losing 15 staff'," he said.

"That's quite a big number. You'd expect that given that there are schools that might have 30 to 50 international students that the number would be lower than 15, you might be talking one or two, or in some cases half a dozen."

Boyle said the union was working with principals to persuade the government to stump up more money to save jobs.

The chairperson of the Schools International Education Business Association, Patrick Walsh, said the government had already provided money to protect the jobs of international student directors and home stay coordinators, but other jobs were still at risk.

"Many schools up and down the country have extra teaching staff generally to reduce class size and to provide a broader curriculum. Given that we won't have international students for some time, principals and boards of trustees are looking at whether they need to let these people go over time because they just can't sustain that financial burden," he said.

"Not only will it impact on those teachers themselves, but also the curriculum that's being offered in the school and maybe class sizes will have to increase as a result of it."

Walsh said he did not know how many teaching jobs might be lost.

Teacher redundancies not just in Auckland

Auckland secondary schools are the biggest enrollers of foreign students in the school sector, but a principal in another region told RNZ he expected every secondary school in his area would have to make at least one teacher redundant because of the loss of foreign students.

Universities New Zealand chairperson Derek McCormack said the eight universities lost $200 million in revenue this year mostly due to the fall in foreign enrolments, and they were expecting that figure to double next year if no new students were allowed into the country.

"This year was difficult but not as difficult as next year if we can't bring any international students from offshore," he said.

Post Primary Teachers Association pres left and chairperson of Universities New Zealand, Derek McCormack

Jack Boyle, left, and Derek McCormack Photo: RNZ / Supplied

He said universities were expecting more domestic students in 2021, but they would still have to make cuts.

"We could end up in a situation where we have the same number of students as we would have expected, with the domestic students making up the losses of international students, but we would have significantly less income to do the same work," he said.

McCormack said universities had to approve their 2021 budgets by the end of December and it was hard to plan without knowing when foreign students would be allowed to return.

Some universities might decide to carry financial losses while they waited for the border to reopen, but it was likely they would have to lay off staff.

"There will be reduced staffing. Some of that may appear in the form of losses of otherwise secure positions, some of it may appear in the form of non-replacement or non-hiring of casual and short-term staff. So there'll be a mix of measures that might affect the total staffing of the university," he said.

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Otago University and the country's seven other universities lost in total $200 million in revenue this year mostly due to to the fall in foreign students. Photo: supplied

Cuts at polytechs

Polytechnics were also expecting more domestic students, but a lot fewer foreign students and some were planning cuts as a result.

The Porirua and Wellington polytechnics, Whitireia and Weltec, had started consultation on closing their Auckland campus at the end of the year with the loss of more than 30 jobs.

The president of the Tertiary Education Union, Michael Gilchrist, said universities and polytechnics should not cut jobs because domestic enrolments would increase next year.

He said institutions were often too quick to make staff redundant.

"Staff are cut and two, three, four months down the track, perhaps six months, staff have to be re-employed because the cuts were not in fact well-judged," he said.

"That is the familiar pattern. We want to avoid that completely unnecessary pain and hardship that comes with making cuts prematurely."

Gilchrist said universities and polytechnics should run deficits next year to show the inadequacy of government funding.

"They need to do that to expose the extent to which international students have subsidised domestic provision," he said.

The chairperson of Independent Tertiary Education New Zealand, which represented hundreds of private tertiary institutions, Craig Musson, said its members had already laid off about 100 staff.

He said the organisation's members estimated they would lose a further 250 jobs because of the loss of foreign students but that would grow to 500 lay-offs if their applications to a government support fund failed.

English New Zealand, which represented the largest English language schools, said its members had so far made more than 150 staff redundant.

"In addition to that, schools shed many casuals and fixed term staff before redundancies, some staff have taken extended leave without pay while the border is closed, and others have moved on," it said.

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