VC's Update - workloads and capital expenditure

12 Mar 2021

Hello everyone,

A lot is happening right now, so I thought it would be good to try to catch everyone up with the news around the University.

First off, I want to offer some perspective about some remarks made by the Prime Minister last week indicating that universities had not acted to bring international students back to Australia. We, and indeed most other universities, continue to work closely with our state and territory governments to find a way to enable our overseas students to come back to campus, in a way that neither risks public health, nor displaces Australians overseas trying to get home. One thing is for sure, this is not affected by a lack of developing options or effort on our part! Our thoughts remain with our students and staff unable to get back to Canberra - we will keep trying to get you to campus.

Talking to staff, I know that people remain worried about the future. While we live in a very uncertain environment, ANU acted promptly last year, and I still believe the over-all reshaping of the University announced last year remains appropriate for our future. Right now, we are in an awkward time to be discussing finances, as we cannot discuss our final 2020 financial numbers until they are cleared by Council and the Minister. But, there is not a surprise surplus as seen at other universities - we will unfortunately see a deficit for 2020 as we expected. COVID-19's impact on us right now is worse than other universities because to improve our student experience, we chose to decrease our student intake for 2020, whereas our competition all grew student numbers to increase revenue. So despite having a very large surplus in 2018 and 2019, our fractional decrease in student numbers is amongst the largest in the sector.  We remain confident that over the next several years we are amongst the best placed universities to regain our revenue, but we need to be prudent with our expenses while we stay focused on rebuilding our income.

Given this environment, many of you have questioned why we are spending $17 million to purchase a piece of land from the ACT Government. This honours an agreement that pre-dates the pandemic, and which the ACT Government deferred for 12 months to help us last year.  While we could have potentially reneged on our commitment, that piece of land - which will be irreplaceable to the future ANU - would be forever lost if we had not done so. Council has made it clear that we can borrow money for capital expenditure, the land purchase is an example of this, and transition costs during this crisis, but not for our operating costs like salaries. So we have to be careful we do not need to borrow too much money such that we cripple the University through its repayment, but we also need to ensure we don't make decisions that cripple ANU by not investing in the things that allow us to be a great university in the future. The land we have agreed to purchase is very important to us and we are looking at how we can convert it into an income stream.  Similar things might come up in the future, but you'll not see me making decisions to sacrifice jobs for capital expenditure.

Other things that many people are worried about are their workloads, and not having as much contact with their supervisor as they might like. I know how hard everyone has worked to get us through this past year but it's important that we all continue to collaborate and talk about ways to ensure our workloads fit into the our paid hours. I know we are all flat-out, so I ask everyone to have open discussions about what we do, and what we shouldn't do and provide this feedback - we are listening. If you're a supervisor please, please speak to your team at least once a week (even more is better!) and make sure they are OK, and their workloads are also OK too. These conversations need to be ongoing as the circumstances around us continue to change. For now, I want you to know that I hear you and I will continue to work with my leadership team to ensure we're providing support and clear guidance to our community.

Finally, I am appearing next week in front of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) talking about foreign interference around universities. ANU has a diverse community from places around Australia, the region and the world. It is imperative that our campus and its digital extension is a place where we can operate free of interference (domestic and foreign) so that we can undertake our academic enquiries. In 2021, interference comes in many forms - and we cannot take for granted the sanctity of our campus. So if you feel your freedom of academic enquiry is being impeded, I want to know, so that we can work to help protect academic freedom on our campus.  And remember, we are a place of scholarly ideas - where debate based on respect should regularly occur, and where the polarising tactics of 'you are with me, or you are against me' should never see the light of day.

I've just arrived in Coonabarabran to say farewell to Steve Lee, the Anglo-Australia Telescope's longest serving telescope operator. Steve and I spent many nights on the telescope together, all the way back to my first year at ANU back in 1995. It will be sad to see him go as he is absolutely irreplaceable.

Have a great weekend everyone, and pray it doesn't rain too much - it is bad for my grapes just before they are going to be harvested.