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Go Back to the List May 25, 2023
Otago University withheld extent of financial straits from staff

University of Otago management knew of the institution’s financial troubles when preparing their 2023 budget last year but withheld their full extent from staff until months later.

Last November, the leadership team decided to omit from its published budget an explanation of a $37.4 million funding hole and a University Council-approved $25 million savings target to mitigate it. It only revealed its full woes in an April bombshell announcement by acting vice-chancellor Professor Helen Nicholson of a need for “$60 million” in savings — a financial warning by vice-chancellor Professor David Murdoch in February had not revealed the extent of savings needed.

When challenged by the Otago Daily Times about the omission and delays, chief financial officer Sharon van Turnhout said: “The budget document is publicly available, and the decision was made that we would not include this detail while we worked through how $25 million [in savings] would be achieved.”

University management did not consult with unions or talk to staff about the savings needed — despite a mention, buried within the budget, of $12.8 million in salary savings being sought.

The university told the ODT it had incorporated savings targets into previous years’ budgets in a similar way and then worked to achieve them.

However, the ODT has discovered these were much smaller amounts. The 2023 savings target was about twice the size of savings targets set in 2022 and 2021.

Further, even if all the $25 million in savings was achieved, the 2023 budget forecasted a disastrous end-of-year position of a $12.4 million deficit.

The end-of-year position now forecast by the university is a deficit of $22.5 million, according to the latest information, largely because of lower student enrolments than forecast.

Aside from a call for voluntary redundancies, which closes on June 2, announcements about other savings are still pending because of closed-door management deliberations.

“Staffing reduction targets have not been agreed,” van Turnhout said.

The university had a long-range financial forecast, but not a fixed financial management plan, she said.

Tertiary Education Union branch president Associate Professor Craig Marshall said staff were “baffled” and “scared” — and leaving.

An Official Information Act response to the ODT showed a steady rise in turnover of staff from 8.7 per cent in 2020 to 14.8 per cent in 2022.

A university spokeswoman said an initial warning of savings needed was given to staff in February by vice-chancellor Professor David Murdoch before he went on sick leave.

Speaking for the union, Marshall responded: “It is very disappointing that the position was known last November ... It is better to get information out there than hold it back.”

Staff should have been given the “opportunity to be involved and have their ideas heard over months” and staff did not know “the mechanism” for getting involved, he said.

In April, when announcing the need for major savings due to a “worse” position, Nicholson said a new seven-year plan would be outlined at an all-staff forum in six weeks’ time.

However, director of strategy, analytics and reporting David Thomson said the plan was discussed in the University Council’s May meeting but it would not be published until after the council’s next meeting in June.

Speaking as a member of staff, Professor John Reynolds, from the department of anatomy, said “until we know the plan, the waters are muddied with high anxiety and fear of people losing their jobs”.

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Written by Mary Williams,
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