NOTRE DAME university’s financial strife was a crisis 10 years in the making, rather than a problem created by the Covid pandemic, says the National Tertiary Education Union.
NDA vice chancellor Francis Campbell announced a voluntary redundancy scheme in a memo to staff late last month, saying the uni had to cut staff costs by $15 million. If the redundancies are equal across its Fremantle, Sydney and Broome campuses, that would equate to around 80 jobs being shed locally.
Prof Campbell said Notre Dame’s staffing budget was proportionately the highest of any university in Australia and needed to be reined in.
But NTEU Notre Dame branch president Richard Hamilton told the Herald he believed poor decision making over the last decade had left the university with an unsustainable funding model.
“Notre Dame has been relying on the Commonwealth Grant Scheme more than any other private university,” Dr Hamilton said.
The Turnbull government slashed funding to the scheme in 2016/17 when its popularity saw the budget ballooning and Dr Hamilton says this exposed the lack of diversity in the university’s income as it was expanding its Sydney campus.
He believes Notre Dame should have increased its intake of full fee-paying domestic students and international students.
Dr Hamilton said the current crisis threw into question decisions made under former vice chancellor Celia Hammond and her governing body.
“The board was asleep at the wheel,” he said.
Dr Hamilton said the union didn’t disagree with many of the measures Prof Campbell had suggested to address the funding black hole and didn’t want to take an adversarial position; “but we don’t think it’s fair for the people who have carried the university for the last 10 years to be the ones who pay the cost.”
He says the impact will also hit local businesses.
“That’s 80 cups of coffee each day, that’s 80 people going out and buying their lunch or something in the local businesses.”
Fremantle mayor Brad Pettitt said he hadn’t been aware of the level of redundancies.
“Not only is it a loss for Fremantle but of course for the talented staff the uni is set to lose,” Dr Pettitt said.
“Notre Dame sadly aren’t alone as the whole higher education sector is getting hammered, which is a real concern.”
Ms Hammond, now the federal member for Curtin, said there was no financial problem during her time at the university and she couldn’t comment on the current situation.
“Over the 10 years of my time as vice chancellor, the university significantly improved both its financial position and its overall student enrolments, and, most importantly, retained the high levels
of student satisfaction and graduate outcomes which it seeks to provide and upon which it has built its reputation.
“For the last five years of my tenure at the university, the amount of Commonwealth support places provided to the university remained relatively steady.
“As with many organisations, managing the financial position of the university was a matter which required both constant attention to (and a balancing of) both short-term and longer-term challenges and opportunities, and the ability to quickly and effectively implement changes as and when required.
“That the university many now be making changes to its operations is not at all surprising – in fact, it would be far more surprising if it were not doing so.”
Some staff have questioned the decision to purchase Customs House on the corner of Phillimore and Henry Streets in 2017, saying it’s layout wasn’t suited to the uni’s needs and there are large areas that are rarely used.
The uni was also hit with a multi-million bill following an Australian Tax Office “clarification” that superannuation had to be paid on annual leave – a problem many organisations encountered. Although the ATO only required repayments for the five years before its clarifier, Notre Dame has decided to pay staff back to 2009 when the original ruling was made.
There have also been fears raised that Notre Dame might downgrade the Freo campus and focus its attention on Sydney, where Prof Campbell is currently stuck because of WA’s border restrictions.
The Herald asked Prof Campbell to respond to the NTEU’s claims, but instead got a release attributed to “a spokesperson” on the basis the university wanted “correct information in context”.
“As explained to staff in August, our staffing budget, on a proportionate scale, is the highest of any university in Australia at 65 per cent of turnover in 2018 compared to a sector average of 54 per cent,” the statement read.
“Last year it increased to 67 per cent of turnover. The reduction of $15 million from salaries will enable the university to achieve a staffing budget to turnover closer to 60 per cent in 2021.”
The statement said 2020 had been an unsettling time for the higher education sector generally, with the federal government announcing significant changes to university funding and universities having to adapt quickly to moving online during Covid and then competing in an increasingly competitive domestic market.
“Savings have been achieved through a range of measures such as a reduction in facility management and leasing costs.
“The executive team have been restructured, and from the beginning of April, and for the ensuing six months, the board of directors reduced its costs by 40 per cent, and senior executive leaders volunteered a reduction in salaries of between 10 per cent and 20 per cent.
“This is a difficult and unsettling time for our university community however the university has faced challenges in the past and continued to excel in what we do best – providing our students with a first-rate education and student experience.
“We are responding to different challenges, which we are doing, to ensure the long-term sustainability of the university.”
By Steve Grant