Regulator investigates as university attracts minister’s ire

Regional Australian university under cloud as it argues the toss over transparency commitments

November 2, 2020
Source: iStock

Australia’s largest regional university has enlisted support from state representatives after their federal counterpart accused it of covering up financial issues being investigated by the higher education regulator.

In the latest in a series of attacks on Charles Sturt University (CSU), minister for regional education Andrew Gee – whose rural New South Wales electorate includes two CSU campuses – accused the institution of reneging on a commitment to release an independent audit report.

Mr Gee said CSU’s deficits had started “well before Covid” and caused “enormous” community concern after the university started shedding staff. He told the federal parliament that “a full, open and transparent audit” was warranted but “the vice-chancellor and the council have declined to honour the resolution to provide the report”.

Under a June resolution, CSU’s council had agreed to commission an independent external audit of the university’s financial position, with the auditor “reporting back…for council to provide [a] report to the Australian and NSW governments”.

“The council resolved…that it will work transparently and cooperatively with the governments,” the resolution added.

But CSU insists that it never committed to hand over the “full” report, which was written by auditors KPMG and has now been deemed commercially confidential by the council. Instead, the university released a brief summary of KPMG’s findings stating that CSU was “on track” to meet its most recently estimated deficit.

The university also produced statements of support from three state MPs, all members of Mr Gee’s National Party, who said they had been briefed on the KPMG audit and were satisfied with the findings.

“Charles Sturt has been transparent with me and I thank them for being so open,” said NSW legislative council MP Wes Fang, whose regional base of Wagga Wagga hosts CSU’s biggest campus. “I saw no issues that might impact on the university’s future.”

CSU told Times Higher Education that it had “voluntarily” shared the KPMG report with the NSW Audit Office. But representatives of the federal government and the Department of Education, Skills and Employment told a Senate estimates hearing that they had not been given copies.

Nor has the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Teqsa), which revealed that it was investigating CSU following a referral from the education minister regarding the university’s financial status.

“We’ve had one preliminary meeting with the chancellor,” Teqsa chief commissioner Nicholas Saunders told the hearing. “We are…drawing up a list of evidence that we require so that we can conduct a proper investigation.”

Mr Gee said the investigation would give the government and community “confidence” and he was “now awaiting the conclusion of Teqsa’s work”.

CSU has already attracted Teqsa sanctions. Last year the regulator temporarily banned the university from accepting new students at its Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane campuses and reregistered it for just four years instead of the customary seven.

CSU has also drawn accusations that it lacks transparency after failing to release the minutes of council meetings. Professor Saunders told the hearing that Teqsa “does not have a view” about whether university council meetings should be made public.

CSU vice-chancellor Andrew Vann began a six-month period of sabbatical and leave on 22 June, as the pandemic’s full economic impact was becoming evident. His job was advertised in May when his contract still had 19 months to run.

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