Adelaide leaders’ exit ‘nothing to do with coronavirus’

Australian university’s losses ‘less than our east coast counterparts’, acting v-c tells staff

May 6, 2020
Adelaide city centre
Source: iStock

Coronavirus-related financial problems had nothing to do with the shock departure of the University of Adelaide’s chief executive and the head of its governing council, the institution insists.

In a 6 May statement, Adelaide said that the announcements of the previous two days were “not in any way related to the financial health of the university or the impacts of Covid-19.

“The university, like many institutions, is facing a budget shortfall due to Covid-19 but is in a sound financial position and is expecting a strong recovery after the pandemic has ended.

“There is no risk of the university becoming insolvent [and] no suggestion of financial impropriety. The university is not in a position to comment further.”

Vice-chancellor Peter Rathjen sought indefinite leave on the morning of 5 May, just hours after chancellor Kevin Scarce had abruptly resigned. The university advised of Rear Admiral Scarce’s departure, about seven months ahead of the end of his term, in a short statement issued on the afternoon of 4 May. It has given no reasons for either man’s decision.

A well-placed source told Times Higher Education that Rear Admiral Scarce had resigned in the middle of an extraordinary meeting of the university’s council, during which the institution’s finances were discussed. In an email distributed on the evening of 6 May, acting vice-chancellor Mike Brooks assured staff that the university's financial position was stable. “We have many great opportunities ahead of us and also some challenges,” it said.

“In comparison with last year, our first and second semester domestic enrolments have held steady, while international enrolments are up 5 per cent in first semester and projected to be down 16 per cent in second semester.”

This would equate to a downturn of expected revenue in the vicinity of A$90 million (£47 million), with the university expecting to spend another A$10 million responding to the coronavirus. “Several east coast universities are forecasting shortfalls far in excess of ours,” Professor Brooks noted.

Institutions with significantly more international students than Adelaide expect to lose hundreds of millions of dollars. Projections of revenue downturns include A$600 million at UNSW Sydney, A$500 million at the University of Melbourne, A$470 million at the University of Sydney, A$395 million at Monash University and between A$240 million and A$480 million at the University of Queensland.

Professor Brooks said Adelaide’s senior executive team was “fully committed to steering our institution through the coming period. We have the full support of council to do this and together we remain very confident about the future of our university.”

He said savings measured already implemented included a staff recruitment freeze, a pause on new capital works and revised faculty budgets, while the university also hoped to cultivate new revenue streams from research funding and short online courses.

“We may also draw upon short-term borrowings if required,” he added. “Our current borrowings sit at A$50 million which is very modest for a research-intensive institution.”

While such news may reassure staff, it deepens the mystery over why the two senior leaders of Australia’s third oldest university have suddenly left in the midst of an unprecedented crisis.

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