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University of Newcastle records multimillion dollar surplus amidst hundreds of staff cuts

The $185 million surplus comes after two years of staff redundancies, which were justified as cost-saving measures in the context of COVID.

The University of Newcastle (UON) has recorded a surplus of $185 million for the 2021 reporting period after hundreds of staff redundancies over the last several years.

This surplus was revealed in its 2021 Annual Report tabled on Monday in the NSW Parliament, alongside the annual reports of eight other universities.

“Management, supported by the corporatised University Council, leveraged the ‘unique opportunity’ that they called Covid and sacked hundreds of staff despite admitting in as early as 2020, they knew this surplus was coming,” said NTEU Newcastle Branch President Dan Conway.

Last year, 150 full-time equivalent academic positions were cut across the UON’s faculties as part of a restructuring program that saw the University’s five faculties merged into three colleges of learning in November. Despite introducing more full-time academic positions following the restructure, the restructures still resulted in a net loss of total positions.

At the height of the 2020 lockdowns, UON Vice-Chancellor Alex Zelinsky advised staff that the University was expecting a deficit of $58 million, which was the likely rationale for the faculty-wide restructuring and staff job losses.

In reality, the University reported a “modest surplus” of $7.5 million in 2020. This year’s annual report marks a significant increase in the University’s financial outcomes and demonstrates the strength of its financial position.

“This surplus, and those for every year going back more than a decade, show that our University is among the most financially secure in the country,” Conway said.

“Management, including those on [UON’s] Council, need to answer for their actions of continually cutting away at staff and, in turn, cutting away at student learning,” he said. 

University of Newcastle Students’ Association (UNSA) President Jess Philbrook told Honi that the Association echoed the same sentiment as the NTEU.

“We are flawed that during a time of so much turmoil and hurt, the University of Newcastle saw record profits. It begs the question, why off the back of a major culling of professional staff and arts based degrees, are the university still insisting that the changes were necessary and that this surplus was somehow unexpected,” Philbrook said in a statement.

“People lost their livelihoods, students lost their supervisors and mentors. It’s unacceptable. UoN is a Not-For-Profit so students are rightfully asking how, in any universe this can just be taken as an ‘unexpected surplus’.

“UNSA are looking forward to liaising with the NTEU and other stakeholders in order to understand how this happened. We will advocate for the university to appropriately fund student wellbeing and education initiatives now that the funds are clearly available to do so.”

The University’s annual report also shows a 3.6 per cent decrease in employee related expenses, which amounts to approximately $17.5 million in decreased spending.

University of Newcastle Annual Report 2021

“These results vindicate our position. Our University was never under threat from Covid. It was, and remains however, under threat from management and successive federal governments who neglect our institutions,” Conway said.

“The hypocrisy involved here is brazen and deeply problematic. For an institution that should be setting an irreproachable standard in ethical operating, this level of bad faith, if not downright deceit, is unconscionable,” he said. 

In a press release yesterday, Vice-Chancellor Alex Zelinsky said: “The size of the surplus is unusual and it’s important to take a closer look at what’s happening.”

“While ultimately our University achieved a surplus in 2021, it was the positive investment return that helped to buffer our overall financial position. Our aim is to ensure our University remains financially sustainable for the long-term,” Zelinsky said.

This also comes at the same time the University of Sydney reported its own surplus of $1.04 billion, making it the richest NSW university during 2021.

*Note: This article was updated on Friday 27 May to include a statement from the UNSA.