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Sydney University student-staff ratio crashes amid $3.3 billion endowment

USyd’s enormous wealth consolidates a crisis in tertiary education and indicates a university executive crying wolf over the grinding austerity measures of the past years.

Following revelations that the University of Sydney produced an eye-watering $1.04 billion surplus last year, student-staff ratio has crashed to the worst level in at least two decades amid brutal staff cuts and an enormous endowment. 

Ballooning student–staff ratio amid brutal staff cuts

Last year saw one of the largest annual increases in student numbers in the past decade at the University, which grew by 23 per cent from 60,868 students in 2020 to 74,862 in 2021. 

In other words, this means that USyd’s student population is now larger than that of Coffs Harbour. 

Meanwhile, academic and professional staff both experienced significant cuts. The number of teaching staff reduced from 3743 to 3514, representing a drop of more than 220 positions, or 6 per cent of all academic staff. This trend is evident across the institution more generally, with austerity measures resulting in a 4.5 per cent reduction in both academic and professional staff. 

This means that the number of academic staff at USyd is at its lowest level in four years since 2018. 

It means that the student-to-staff ratio blew out from 16 to 21 students per teaching staff by the end of 2021, mirroring similar patterns in universities across the country and consolidating a crisis in higher education arising during Australia’s nine years of Liberal-National Coalition governance. 

The decline has occurred in tandem with falling numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, dropping below 1 per cent of the student body as of December 2021. This is contrary to USyd’s assertion that the figure “remained steady”. In response to its year-on-year decline in the number of Indigenous staff, a University of Sydney spokesperson said that: “It is standard practice in such reporting to round figures to the nearest percentage point”.

Subsequently, the University said that the percentage of Indidenous staff, as of May 2022, now stands at 1.1 per cent.    

Capping off what was a turbulent year for staff, the Auditor revealed that the University “reported a liability for the underpayment of professional and academic employees of $21.2 million”. 

Significant increases in endowment 

These cuts have taken place in the context of an enormous surplus and hefty endowment for the University. Spurned by a substantial increase in donations, USyd’s endowment has grown to a staggering $3.33 billion, up from $2.24 billion in 2020. This was made possible by the $757 million the University received as income from private sources, drawing particularly on an exponential growth in investment income, which rose from 68.5 million in 2020 to 466 million in 2021. 

Needless to say, then, that USyd’s enormous $3.41 billion investment portfolio is working its magic in the pursuit of profit. For example, there was a $232 million increase in its equity reserves, which are primarily attributed to the University’s Badgerys Creek site currently eyed by the NSW Government for Sydney’s second airport. 

The University of Sydney’s land holdings are also generating significant profit for the institution. Controversial sales of properties in Camperdown generated $23.2 million whilst government bought properties at the University’s vast Badgerys Creek site for Sydney’s second airport contributed $76.4 million to USyd’s coffers. 

Put into context, USyd is now one of the most wealthy universities in the world. If the university was located in Europe, it would easily rank as the third wealthiest institution in Europe behind only Oxford and Cambridge in absolute terms who hold a hefty $10.7 and $12.5 billion endowment respectively. 

Notable donations that the University received in 2021 included $743,000 from David Anstice for nanohealth research and a Business Scholarship. Anstice was the Deputy Chair of the United States Studies Centre (USSC) Board of Directors and a senior executive of pharmaceutical giant Merck Sharp & Dohme (an overseas arm of Merck & Co) until 2008. The pharmaceutical conglomerate is one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, generating a mammoth $54 billion in 2021. 

Another is a $564,000 donation from Tom and Denise Yim’s Yim Family Foundation to renew the Colin Phegan Lectureship and create a Barrister in Residence at Sydney Law School – dramatically up from the $180,000 that the Yims contributed to set up the lectureship back in 2013. 

Responding to the news, SRC Education Officer Lia Perkins criticised the “huge numbers”, saying that ultimately, USyd’s enormous surplus is the fruit of staff labour. In light of this, Perkins argues that a serious, substantive pay rise above inflation must be implemented imminently to recognise the hard work and adaptability of staff throughout the past years.

“These [numbers] are off the back of all the wage theft that the university does and the overwork that it [USyd] forces staff to do, including all the unpaid hours,” Perkins said. 

“They [USyd] should take staff demand seriously for pay because what changes our education and makes education better is when we have quality teaching or when tutors are actually able to do their job.” 

Going further, Perkins argues that the University’s wealth must be invested into its greatest asset, the student community and staff, rather than financing vanity capital projects.

“That will make a difference rather than using that surplus and endowment to build new buildings.” 

University management crying wolf in NSW

Enormous surpluses, endowment, and ballooning student-to-staff ratios is now a common narrative among NSW’s major tertiary institutions. The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) reported an operating surplus of $122 million almost tripling its 2020 surplus. UTS’ profit was bolstered by a $93 million dividend from Education Australia’s sale of shares in IDP (International Education Specialists). 

A similar picture is also unfolding at UNSW, where the institution confirmed a surplus of $305 million. For UNSW, this came off the back of one of the harshest austerity measures in the country, as the University cut 721 jobs from its 2020 workforce.

Amid the turmoil, one element that united the major universities was a “lower than anticipated” reduction in international student income. At the beginning of the pandemic, universities cried foul and raised falling international student numbers as justification for cutting staff. In the early stages of COVID-19, former USyd Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence now the UK’s highest-paid VC suggested that the university might lose some $470 million. 

That prediction never came to pass.  

Contrary to these grim projections, international student enrolment has not only avoided collapse but rather increased drastically in 2021. The only organ in the University to bleed was academic staff and, by extension, USyd’s vaunted student experience. 

From a purely corporate perspective, current Vice-Chancellor Mark Scott’s leadership may appear as a triumph of conservative prudence over teaching excellence. However, the sheer scale of the University of Sydney’s wealth, measured in the billions, lends little credence to the catastrophic prophecies relentlessly peddled by Spence, Scott, and their counterparts. In the face of 2020’s Job-Ready Graduates Package (JRG), Universities Australia compromised and accepted fee hikes in exchange for minor amendments. 

No wonder university executives have an antagonistic relationship with those who hold them accountable – among these being student activists and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), who are currently negotiating for a new enterprise bargaining agreement.

Last month, the Coalition was replaced by the Albanese Labor Government. Time will tell whether Labor will reverse cuts imposed on the sector over the last nine years. In the lead up to the election, Labor proposed fee-free TAFE, increased university places for  underrepresented communities, and an Australian Universities Accord to reform the sector. The last of these, the Accord, remains up for interpretation as Albanese seeks to “deliver accessibility, affordability, quality, certainty, sustainability and prosperity” for universities. 

It would be wise for Albanese to take stock of the crisis in student-to-staff ratios, chronic casualisation, and funding cuts to higher education among the issues that the Accord and his ministry must address.  

Meanwhile, back on the USyd campus, Perkins’ words perhaps best encapsulate what it takes for the student community to push back against the conservatism gripping Australian higher education: “We should be responding really seriously”.

Perkins does not underestimate the challenges that lie ahead, knowing that it will take substantial student political will to mobilise and organise against the moribund status quo. 

“It will include things like supporting staff when they go on strike, showing other students about staff demands, about casualisation at the university and converting casuals to permanent jobs. The task now is to fight for that, through whatever means necessary on the streets.”