Edition 3 2021

UniMelb Posts Surplus During COVID-19–At Whose Cost?

1 June 2021

The University of Melbourne posted a surplus of $8 million during the COVID-19 pandemic, having cut more than 750 jobs and dozens of University subjects, alongside $360 million in spending. Cost-cutting policies, however, have come at the expense of the student experience and well-being of University staff.

University Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell said that the small surplus—in comparison to the $360 million posted in 2019—was because of “prudent financial management and the resilience of the University community”. The story, however, sounds less victorious from those short-changed by the budget cuts. 

In February we were told we have a surplus and in the same communication that we still must find $252 million in savings,” said Annette Herrera, Vice President of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). Herrera added that the University was “far from being at financial risk”, having ranked as the richest university in Australia as of 2019.

Luis Bogliolo, a casual tutor at the Faculty of Arts and Melbourne Law School, told Farrago  that while he enjoys teaching, the University does not pay enough to make the work worth it.

“I am paid for three hours of work for each tutorial, and it [is] not an exaggeration to say sometimes I take three days to prepare a class.” 

Bogliolo’s financial situation, like many of the University’s underpaid casual staff, was made worse by the transition to online teaching. He cited the “drastic learning curve” as he juggled completing a PhD with having to rethink tutorial activities and learn video editing. 

His response to the $8 million surplus was one of “anger and frustration”.

“The University has done a terrible job in being open and honest with its employees. Some faculties have had more enrolments than before the pandemic [yet] have been targeted for job cuts. $8 million might seem small for someone … earning a million-plus a year, but [this surplus] could have funded 80 full-time jobs at one hundred thousand dollars a year.”

Herrera maintained that the $252 million dollar cost-cutting target will be detrimental to the University’s quality of education. 

“Less [funding for] teaching, research, [and] support staff means less support for students … [especially] when your class size doubles.”

Students are already feeling the pinch. As a recent survey of Australian tertiary institutions found, the University of Melbourne recorded the greatest fall in student satisfaction across the country. Only 52.3 per cent mentioned they were satisfied with the quality of education they received in 2020, a decrease of 25.3 per cent from 2019.

Herrera added that it will be “students from marginalised backgrounds” that are the hardest hit by the University’s money-saving scheme. 

Arletta Witaria, a third-year international student, said that it was “ludicrous” that the University couldn’t cut a portion of student fees even when they earned a surplus. 

“With my parents earning money in [Indonesian rupiah], having to keep up with my cost of living in Australia [has] deeply affected their wallets.” Witaria told Farrago that she has since moved back home “for a more affordable cost of living”. 

The University is expected to continue with planned job cuts in 2021.

 


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