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University Trims the Fat as Academics Face the Axe

Max Chalmers investigates why your lecturers might be missing.

The University of Sydney. The University of Sydney.

The Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence has put his fiscal foot down—and it’s accelerating towards the necks of academics and general staff.

On February 17, The University of Sydney released its ‘Final Change Plan’, a document that outlines budgetary procedures for the coming year.

The University of Sydney.

Included is a 7.5 per cent cut in ‘salary-related expenditure’ designed to offset infrastructure costs. What does that mean? Good news if you’re a waiting-to-be-built obesity centre, bad news if you’re a student hoping for smaller classes. The University is reported to be looking to cut up to 340 staff with a range of methods including early retirements and voluntary redundancies.

Despite the impending redundancies, student numbers continue to rise with approximately 800 more undergraduate places accepted this year
compared to 2011. While academics face employment uncertainty, students can expect class sizes to continue to bloat. Academics are also warning of longer wait times for consultations, feedback, and bureaucratic processes as their workload is stretched even further.

The cuts have been fiercely opposed by academics and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) who have highlighted the University’s ongoing profitability.  In 2010 Sydney University’s ‘net operational margin’ was $113 million, of which about $35 million was no-strings-attached profit.

Furthermore, University income is predicted to grow by 6.99 per cent during the next year. This appears to be a healthy state of affairs.

The problem is that the growth rate is lower than initially predicted. The University administration are arguing this miscalculation has left them short of funds needed for backlogged infrastructure repairs, ICT improvement, and governmentally mandated upgrades for disability access.

The need to cut spending is also partially the result of Australians getting fatter. The building of the new Centre for Obesity, Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease is expected to cost $385 million. The Federal government will provide just $95 million meaning the University must fork out $290 million of its own.

On top of staff cuts, the University is planning $28 million in ‘non-salary cuts’ by assigning departments spending caps. This has already caused controversy with the pending dismantling of the Refugee Language Program. The program, which provides free English tutoring for refugees awaiting processing, costs just $42,000 a year.  When asked on ABC Radio why such cost effective programs were being erased, VC Spence mused: “A million dollars is made up of many $42,000 dollars”.  Confucius, eat your heart out.

With NTEU opposition gearing up and academics speaking out this is sure to be a major issue of contention during the semester.