USyd forks out $24k a year on Executives’ meals

While Belinda Hutchinson can spend USyd money gorging herself on Southern Rock Lobster and Smoked Confit Pig Jowl at Quay Restaurant, struggling students must avail themselves of the free grocery essentials provided by the SRC and USU’s Foodhub.

Art by Ellie Stephenson.

Expense sheets released to Honi reveal that the University of Sydney’s top Executives spent $23,978.10 of University money on meals in 2017, with much of this sum spent at fine dining establishments.

USyd Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson expensed $600 at the Quay Restaurant in The Rocks in 2017. Headed by celebrity chef Peter Gilmore and dubbed Restaurant of the Year in the Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Guide, Quay is one of the most extravagant venues in the country. Quay offers two menu options to customers: a six-course meal for $280 or an eight-course meal for $340, with wine pairing costing up to $250 extra per person.

Despite the high cost incurred at Quay – which exceeds the $530 fortnightly payment Centrelink payment received by 18 to 22 year-old students who live out of home to study – the expense sheets do not explain the nature of the occasion or any justification for the $600 spent. Rather, the released documents simply state that all meals were purchased in accordance with University policy.

USyd’s Non-Allowable Expense policy allows for “reasonable food and drink” expenses while travelling on University business, while the Travel Policy and Procedures allow meal expenses that are “reasonable business costs”.

It is difficult to understand why Hutchinson – a board member of multinational weapons company Thales and owner of a $20 million apartment in Point Piper – would ever ‘reasonably’ require the University to cover any of her meal expenses, let alone patronage at the likes of Quay.

According to a University spokesperson, “the $600 the Chancellor claimed for a meal at Quay Restaurant in 2017 was for a group six, to thank a retiring member of Senate for their more than 10 years’ service including chairing a number of Senate committees for which they received no remuneration. The Vice-Chancellor agreed $100 per head was a reasonable expense, and the Chancellor personally paid for the remainder of the bill.”

The current expensing approval processes at USyd is set up so that top Executives can spend University money with the approval of the Vice-Chancellor.

Spence himself spends the most of any Executive, reporting a total of $10,405.35 on 56 meals in 2017 and 2018 for an average meal cost of just over $185.

Spence spent more than $300 on a single meal on multiple occasions, at venues like Restaurant Pendolino and the Australian Club, the latter of which is an exclusive gentlemen’s club founded in 1838. 

In 2017, Spence reported spending $1,823.80 on an Executive Christmas function at Porteño, where the most expensive steak costs $324. Other notable meal expenses include $1,191.10 for staff at Matt Moran’s Aria Restaurant in Sydney, and $1,138.37 for an alumni dinner at the Shangri-La.

In 2019 and 2020, Spence spent $2,905.13 on meals with “donors” or “prospective donors”. Spence also claimed $1,953.90 on meals with candidates to fill the role of Provost at USyd, which is currently held by Annamarie Jagose. One such meal, presumably with a single candidate, cost the University $526.

Candidates for the role of Vice-Chancellor were also well-looked after under USyd’s regime of lavish spending. According to the released documents, USyd paid $652.96 for “gifts” for candidates involved in the hiring process for the role, which is currently held by Mark Scott.

Currently, Honi does not have access to sufficient data to assess the expenditure of Executives since the hiring of Scott. What is clear, however, is a pattern of exorbitant spending on USyd’s dime under Michael Spence, a culture in which the Executive’s relationships with money was distorted by their enormous personal wealth and the relative freedom with which they could claim costs on the University.

Such behaviour is only more alarming in the context of significant austerity measures at the University, record wage theft from staff, and increasing casualisation. The luxuries afforded to the Executives also lie in stark contrast to the increasing financial pressures on students amid the rising cost of living. Indeed, while Hutchinson can spend USyd money gorging herself on Southern Rock Lobster and Smoked Confit Pig Jowl at Quay Restaurant, students juggling work, study and paying rent must avail themselves of the free grocery essentials provided by the SRC and USU’s FoodHub.

*Article has been amended following USyd’s explanation of the $600 spent at Quay Restaurant.

Honi is conducting an investigation into Executive expensing practices. This article is the third of a series. Find the rest below.