Campus and the coronavirus

The impacts of COVID-19 on staff, student organisations and casuals at USyd.

Uncertainty is penetrating all areas of campus life, as students, staff and workers come to terms with the impacts the coronavirus will have on the University. On Sunday, Honi broke the news that a first-year student was diagnosed with COVID-19, before Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence notified students. Two days before, on Friday, the University announced preparations for a potential campus closure, and over the weekend many students have been notified by lecturers and tutors that their courses would be shifted online. With over two weeks until the census date on 31 March, contracts on hold and thousands of students stuck overseas due to travel bans, the campus community is right to be worried about the future of University life.

Staff

University staff are on the frontline of the impact the coronavirus will have on campus life. The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) secured a win from the University on Friday for casual staff, who will be guaranteed special paid leave for any work they miss in a ten day working period. This includes staff who contract the virus, or need to self isolate. Several casual staff members have already been asked to self-isolate following contact with the student who tested positive for COVID-19. But there are a myriad of other ways staff have already been affected by University cutbacks that have been made in response to falling student numbers that the staff union has labelled as “austerity measures.”

Due to an expected $200 million shortfall on expected student fee profits this semester, the University has announced a freeze on all new staff appointments, and on the renewal of fixed-term and casual contracts. Over half of the hours worked at the University of Sydney are worked by people on fixed-term or casual contracts, the freeze set to leave many staff un- or under-employed as their contracts run out over the coming months. If the freeze on contract renewals for fixed-term staff is maintained, hundreds of jobs are likely to be lost.

According to Kurt Iveson, President of the NTEU Branch at USyd, “staff have worked above and beyond for the University over the last 6 weeks to make arrangements for students affected by the travel ban. Many of these staff have been casual or on fixed-term contracts. To now be told that their contracts will not be renewed is a slap in the face for their efforts.” Importantly, similar cuts have not been announced at similarly placed universities, such as UNSW, leading the NTEU to question whether the coronavirus was being used as “cover” for staff cuts.

Staff have also complained they’ve been left unsupported in the shift to online courses. “We’re very concerned about the amount of work that will be required to shift everything online,” Iveson told Honi. “This will require more work, right at the time when VC Spence is imposing austerity measures including a freeze on new appointments and renewals of fixed-term contract.”

The University also agreed with the NTEU at the local Joint Consultative Committee that the University would stop their attempt to use labour hire in the Student Administrative Services department, which they then broke without telling the staff union.

The NTEU is planning a rally against the austerity measures on Wednesday 25 March at 1pm, however, it is unclear whether the event will go ahead at this stage, given that all student, academic and public events and conferences on campus will be cancelled from this week, as well as the looming possibility of a campus closure.

Student Organisations

The effects of the coronavirus on the University’s bottom line are certain to hit student organisations, which are either funded in part (SUSF, USU), or almost entirely (SRC, SUPRA) by the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF). With an estimated 12,000 University of Sydney students stuck in China as a result of the travel ban, with most likely to defer or leave before the 31 March census date, student organisations are set to lose approximately $1,848,000 this semester, or more than 10% of last year’s funding. That is before considering drop in student numbers, as some students have begun dropping units or deferring due to poor quality online classes or to avoid classes with mandatory attendance.

Importantly however, the decrease in SSAF will not impact student organisations uniformly. Whereas only $4 million of the USU’s more than $30 million budget comes from SSAF, with most of its profits coming from food and drink outlets and corporate sponsorships, SUPRA and the SRC are entirely reliant on University funds to remain afloat. As noted above, however the organisation faces losses on two fronts, as a result of a potential campus closure and less money being spent already at USU outlets, as a result of less students being on campus and increased levels of social distancing.

Whilst the SRC’s base funding is secure, meaning all staff salaries, office bearer stipends and collective funding remains unaffected by the changes to SSAF, the contestable projects the SRC was planning on delivering this year look likely to be impacted by the decrease in SSAF. These include: the provision of a part-time solicitor with a focus on dealing with sexual and interpersonal impropriety, an SRC food bank, information workshops, and constitutional and regulatory reform, which would require extensive legal advice before being put to a council meeting. 

It also remains unclear whether student support services will be delivered face-to-face. At the beginning of the year, the SRC ceased in person appointments with the casework and legal service for two days due to staff concerns about contracting the virus. Whether monthly council meetings will continue also remains unclear, as with the student general meeting scheduled for 1 April, where students are set to vote on going on strike for May Day on May 1, and the school strike on May 15. However, the school strike for climate in mid May was cancelled on Saturday.

Sydney University Sport and Fitness (SUSF) is also being affected by the decrease in SSAF funding, although its operations will likely not be impacted to the same degree as other student organisations, considering it relies largely on membership and passes fees, as well as external funding sources. In 2018, the organisation was allocated $5 million in SSAF funding, whilst also generating over $14 million in revenue, on top of donations from “Hockey Donors” and “Boatshed Appeal Donors.” The University has also advised students not to go to sporting or gym facilities.

SRC President Liam Donohoe anticipates that “there is likely to be a significant drop in enrolments next semester, and also possibly in the long-run if international perceptions of Australian universities decline.”

“If enough were worried by the sudden travel ban, or there is a broader social backlash against globalism in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, there may be far less international student enrolments, which is seriously worrisome for SSAF.”

Casuals

Though the University announced on Friday that it would be granting up to two weeks sick leave for casual staff who need to self isolate due to the coronavirus, it is unclear if staff at bars and outlets would be granted the same. University of Sydney Union (USU) President Connor Wherrett declined to comment on whether casuals employed in campus cafes and bars would be granted paid leave for isolation, which is not currently available on their contracts.

That is particularly concerning for casual staff employed in campus cafes and bars who come in close contact with large numbers of people through their work.

But the greater concern for staff is a potential campus shut down, which for many appears inevitable. As Honi reported on Friday, the University has begun moving units of study online and asked faculty to prepare online class plans in preparation for a potential campus shut down. Several American universities, including Harvard and Columbia, and several Southern Cross University campuses and schools in NSW and Victoria have already closed to curtail spread of the virus. Profits from campus outlets are the USU’s main source of funding, with a 2018 financial report stating they made almost $27 million annually. According to Wherrett, the USU has already seen diminished profits this semester due to lowered student numbers on campus, as coronavirus fears mean students avoid campus and thousands of students remain in China due to the travel ban. In the event of a campus closure then, it’s possible the USU will lay off staff or not pay them.

Casual staff remain in the dark about what will happen to their roles in the event campus is closed. “I know myself and others are really stressed about the impact COVID-19 will have on our employment,” one USU employee on a casual contract told Honi. “We don’t have the same support as full time and part time employers, so many of us are left questioning whether we should be looking outside for work or talking to Centrelink.” “You trade a slightly higher pay check for lower security and irregular shifts as a casual employee – so you can brace for the loss or gain of between five and ten hours per week, but no one casual employee can adapt to absorb a loss of more than 20 hours a week,” another USU casual said.

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