Coronavirus: Australian university moves to ‘control’ spending

Other universities likely to rein in their costs as travel ban threatens their bottom line

February 13, 2020

An Australian university is moving to tighten its purse strings as a travel ban triggered by the Covid-19 outbreak prompts mounting concern about its financial well-being.

In an email to staff, University of Wollongong vice-chancellor Paul Wellings outlined measures to “shield our organisation from the financial impact” of disruption caused by the new coronavirus. He said Wollongong’s senior deputy vice-chancellor and chief operating officer would immediately apply an “expenditure control process” across the “full spectrum” of university spending.

“They will review all requests for expenditure on staff, international travel, consultants, major equipment purchases, space refurbishments and new capital works,” the email says. “Other policy and procedural controls may also be implemented.”

Professor Wellings said the measures were necessary to “ensure we remain financially secure” while continuing to deliver the educational experience Wollongong was known for. “If you have suggestions for other appropriate cost savings measures, please let your supervisor know.

“While we hope the spread of this virus can be contained quickly and normal travel resume, we must accept that the resulting financial impact will be felt for some time at UOW and at other Australian universities. At this stage it is too soon to say with certainty what the scale of this impact will be.”

Georgine Clarsen, Wollongong branch president of the National Tertiary Education Union, said casual staff would be disproportionately affected by a hiring clampdown. “Right now, we see too many people with PhDs in insecure work, like kids getting casual shifts at McDonald’s,” she said.

Dr Clarsen said similar instructions were likely to have been issued at other universities, but Wollongong appeared to have been “first out of the blocks”. She said the situation highlighted Australian universities’ dangerous dependence on a volatile source of revenue.

“It’s about public funding of public goods – whether they be hospitals, education or communication systems. This is where we’re at because we’re relying on international fee-paying students.”

A Wollongong spokesman stressed that “greater oversight” of expenditure did not entail a stop on spending.

He said decisions by people who normally had delegation to authorise spending at the faculty level would now be reviewed by two members of the senior executive, “so we can make sure that money is being spent where it needs to be and is being saved where it can be”.

“This is a prudent measure that ultimately is going to help us save jobs in the event that the financial impact becomes larger. We’re shielding our organisation and, by extension, the employment prospects of staff,” the spokesman said.

Wollongong’s spokesman said that while casual staff might be affected by the control process, many were not normally allocated work before the end of February at any rate because of unpredictability in domestic enrolments.

Underlining the complexity of the situation, some of the affected casual staff were likely to be Chinese PhD students who would not be able to accept tutoring work in any event, because they were stuck in China by the travel ban.

Some 98,000 Chinese higher education students have been prevented from coming to Australia by the ban, including about 1,000 from Wollongong.

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