This letter was sent by the Professor John Dewar AO, Vice-Chancellor, in response to concerns raised by a student group regarding changes taking place at the University as a result of COVID-19.
Many thanks for your email and invitation to attend the zoom meeting on 19 June. Unfortunately, due to prior commitments, I am unable to attend. However, I understand that the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Students) has been working closely with your elected Student Association Presidents to arrange a student forum in July, and it is my intention to attend this forum. The planned July forum will provide an opportunity for students to raise questions such as the ones you have listed in your email, and will give the University an opportunity to provide some information to students regarding our return to campus plans and outcomes from semester 1. I encourage you to participate in this forum.
I reject the notion that I have not been open about our current situation; on the contrary, I have made regular and detailed statements to staff and students to keep our community as informed as possible. I gather you are referring to a piece that ran in The Age recently [‘Race to shore up La Trobe University as cash crisis bites’] that suggested La Trobe University is “at risk of going broke in a matter of weeks unless it secures a financial lifeline from the banks and an agreement from staff to cut wages.” This is not correct. The University is not at risk of going broke. We asked The Age to correct the inaccuracies in its report and some of these errors have been fixed in online versions of the story. It is regretful that this report has caused anxiety in the La Trobe community by misrepresenting our budget situation. We issued a media statement and I did many radio and television interviews after the story was published in an effort to correct the record as best I could.
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the entire higher education sector facing financial shortfalls and uncertainty, and La Trobe is no exception. The University faces significant revenue losses this year and in 2021 and 2022, and we are taking action to find cost savings and balance our books over the longer term. The University has implemented a range of cost saving measures, and will continue to do so in the short and long term to ensure the continued successful operations of our University.
You will see from recent press reports and information on the University website that I participated in a national NTEU-University negotiation to develop a Jobs Protection Framework that aims to protect as many jobs as possible. All La Trobe staff will be voting on this framework later this month. It is my sincere belief that, by working together, we can minimise the number of jobs loses. As we consider our course portfolio, we are also carefully reviewing our staffing to ensure we can continue to operate in a financially responsible manner and deliver high quality experiences for our students.
With respect to courses, the University continually reviews its course portfolio in light of student feedback, market demand and the University’s strategic priorities. We are working hard to ensure that we minimise the impacts of any course closures, and will ensure that students are able to complete their degrees in line with our policies.
We have been clear throughout this crisis that the move to completely online teaching is a temporary measure and that we would resume face-to-face activity as soon as practical. Planning for 2021 is underway, and although there may be some changes to subjects and their delivery mode, we are working hard to ensure this is positive for students. The majority of our subjects will revert to standard delivery; however, we are exploring the opportunity to have additional subjects available for students online in the future as part of our online strategy. This will have significant benefits for students in terms of flexibility and access, and will be welcomed by students on our regional campuses who currently experience a limited range of available elective subjects. We also hope that the availability of additional online subjects will provide flexibility for students with family and caring responsibilities.
I will now address your comments on arrangements for census date, the WAM calculation, student fees, and funding of the Student Union.
As you will know, we made a decision in semester one to adjust our census date due to the significant and unique disruption that COVID-19 had on our teaching as we moved activity off campus. The University is not currently planning to adjust the census date for semester two. We have recently released information for students about the subjects that will be delivered on campus for semester two, and we consider it a reasonable expectation that students are aware of what it will be like to continue to study remotely. For these reasons, at this stage, the census date will not move. If there is a requirement for us to make changes once the semester has begun, we will then, of course, consider extending census dates.
We have provided clear advice regarding our WAM decisions, and the fact that opt in/out grading is not possible. The University will review the academic performance of students in semester one and will use that analysis to consider any additional adjustments as part of our standard moderation processes.
The University has clearly articulated the funding levels for the student association for 2020 and made it clear that there will not be any further cuts to their 2020 budget. It is not possible for the University to commit to full funding for 2021 due to the continuing uncertainty of COVID-19. The Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Students) will continue to work with the student associations to develop funding agreements for 2021 which ensure that the core services of the student associations can continue.
With respect to fees reductions, we are working very hard to deliver the best experience that we can in this new delivery mode. For this reason, we will not be reducing fees. We have, however, refunded the semester one Student Services and Amenities Fee ($154) to all students. Furthermore, the University deferred the semester one census date to enable students to make an informed choice about continuing their studies, introduced flexibility for international students to pay their fees in instalments, and has disbursed over $12m in student support.
As I am sure you are aware, the University is a public, not-for-profit institution, with all funds used to support our core missions of teaching and research. We do not have shareholders or pay dividends.
I am currently holding regular webinars with all La Trobe staff detailing the financial position of the University. As part of this transparent approach, we have outlined a number of steps that have been taken to assure the financial sustainability of the University, including increasing our borrowing capacity, cancelling capital expenditure, and reducing non-salary expenditure. Unfortunately, our shortfall in revenue necessitates that we take further steps to balance the University’s budget. This cannot be met by borrowing alone.
I had hoped that La Trobe would gain access to the Federal Government’s Job Keeper support payments, which would have given us a lifeline of around $50m. However, as you may be aware, the eligibility requirements were changed a number of times to deliberately exclude public universities. We continue to press for further support to the provided to the sector.
Thanks again for writing to me, and I hope the information above addresses your concerns. I look forward to discussing these issues and other matters raised by the broader student community at the student forum next month.
With best wishes,
Professor John Dewar AO
Vice-Chancellor and President, La Trobe University