Where did it all go wrong for the University of Wollongong?
The COVID-19 pain started early for UOW.
The university isn't as reliant on international students from China as other institutions around Australia.
But UOW nevertheless felt the pain as soon as the government's initial ban on non-citizens travelling from China was imposed in early February, stranding over 100,000 students offshore.
Large numbers of Indians, Vietnamese, South Koreans, Brazilians and others have also been locked out.
The number of onshore international students in higher education is now sitting at 330,000, down about 30 per cent on last year.
The sudden declines in international student enrolments and campus accommodation occupancy at UOW, cut income from campus and commercial operations and incurred additional costs associated with the pivot to remote course delivery and student hardship support.
On Thursday that pain became too much to hide.
Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings informed staff that at least 150 people would lose their jobs under options being considered to help UOW recover financially from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Staff debated the three options management is considering implementing to help the university recover from a projected $90 million budget shortfall.
About 650 staff, or a quarter of UOW's workforce discussed the motions at two meetings on Friday.
Georgine Clarsen, the UOW branch president of the National Tertiary Education Union, said almost 80 per cent of staff at the meetings voted in favour of this motion: 'Vote Option 3, to get us to Option 4.'
Option 4 reads: "We, the hard-working staff of our public university, demand real transparency, good faith negotiations with staff representatives and job protection guarantees before we are asked to consider temporary changes to our hard won pay and conditions. Option 4 is only possible if staff send a resounding majority message to management: Vote option 3 to get us to option 4."
But it is right also no university is immune to the COVID-19 stresses and doing nothing is not an option.
UOW is not alone in falling victim to the financial tsunami that is COVID-19.
The financial impact of COVID-19 on the higher education sector in Australia and globally is unprecedented.
A report published by Victoria University's Mitchell Institute presented modelling suggesting that Australia's universities face a cumulative loss of between $10 billion and $19 billion from 2020-2023 because of the collapse in international student revenue.
New modelling has universities fearing of tens of thousands of job losses over the next three years, and losing up to $16bn by 2023.
Universities Australia is now forecasting a $16 billion impact of COVID-19 to 2024 and most universities are adjusting expenditure to deal with this crisis.
The university sector is struggling after a series of changes that excluded all public universities from the jobkeeper wage subsidy and the collapse of a deal with the National Tertiary Education Union to accept pay cuts in return for saving up to 12,000 jobs.
The new Universities Australia modelling assumes international student numbers will recover to pre-pandemic numbers by 2022.
Based on a 20 per cent drop in international enrolments this year, it estimated a $3.3bn drop in revenue, rising to a $4.3bn loss with a further 20 per cent drop in 2021.
Profesor Wellings is right when he says the current financial situation at UOW and across the broader Australian and international higher education sector is directly a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It is very easy to consider this a University of Wollongong problem. This has a broader context for higher education and for the country," Prof Wellings said.
"The Premier [Gladys Berejiklian] has already told us the state budget is in a lot of problems. The Treasurer has told us that Australia is in recession and we've now got 10 years of austerity ahead of us.
"It's pretty clear that international tourism for NSW won't get re-booted until 2022, and around 40 per cent of tourism in NSW is linked to the families of international students.
"These things are connected and this is a much broader issue that we are facing as a community."
Pre COVID-19 the university seemed to be doing extremely well, averaging $46.8 million a year surplus per year from 2009 to 2018.
During his decade in charge, Prof Wellings has overseen the significant expansion of the university nationally and internationally.
Under his tenure, UOW has spent $870 million on its facilities, including the Liverpool campus, Molecular Horizons, iAccelerate, the new Arts and Social Sciences building and an 820 new student accommodation beds.
The Vice-Chancellor also outlined actions already taken by university management since January to address the deteriorating fiscal position, including himself and the senior executive taking a voluntary 20 per cent reduction in pay for 12 months, increasing borrowings and curtailing travel, consultancy, capital works, equipment, staff recruitment and non-essential research expenditure.
Read more: V-C, top execs to take 20 per cent pay cut
After accounting for lost revenue from suspending parking fees and the Student Services and Amenities Fee for Autumn Session, along with the $1.9 million paid so far to students suffering financial hardship, these measures will save $33 million, leaving a further $57 million worth of savings required this year.
While optimistic the revenue decline may slow or begin to recover in 2022 as international students return, Professor Wellings emphasised the need for immediate action.
"We've enjoyed a decade of steady annual revenue growth that has enabled us to fund salary increases and absorb rising costs while maintaining an annual surplus of around 2 per cent to invest in new equipment and upgrades to technology and facilities. Those days are now behind us. This pandemic has changed everything," he said.
"COVID-19 has brought permanent, far-reaching changes to our world, our economy and to higher education globally. No university is immune and doing nothing is not an option. As well as returning to financial sustainability, we must also prepare for a post-COVID-19 world that is very different from the future we envisaged just months ago, and with that comes the requirement to make extremely difficult decisions."
- Budget shortfall of $90 million predicted for 2020.
- Revenue down from $691m in 2019 to $601m in 2020.
- Indications UOW's cash balance will drop to about $18 million by December,2020, almost 80% below what was planned before COVID-19
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