Vice-Chancellor’s update for students – 12 May 2020

Professor John Dewar AO, Vice-Chancellor provides an update on how COVID-19 is impacting La Trobe University.

We’re now into the third month of restrictions on campus-based activity, and it’s been four months since Victorians began living with the COVID-19 virus. I hope you’re managing the challenges of living in lockdown and I can only imagine that, like me, you are looking forward to some more of the social distancing restrictions being lifted once it is safe to do so.

I wanted to take this opportunity to update you on how La Trobe has responded to the COVID-19 crisis and outline some of the ways the virus is impacting the University. 

As always, I want to begin by reminding you about our free Student Wellbeing Services. I’m pleased that many students have been making use of this excellent service over the past few months, and encourage you to do the same if you need support.  

Student Crisis Appeal

I recognise that many students are really doing it tough at the moment and, in fact, I’ve never seen anything like this before. In response to the very difficult financial circumstances many of our students are experiencing, we launched the La Trobe Student Crisis Appeal in February. The campaign has now surpassed its original target of $550,000 and raised $594,000 – the response from our staff, alumni and supporters has been fantastic.

These funds are part of the $4 million that we’ve now provided directly to students experiencing hardship through the La Trobe Financial Assistance Program. In total, the University has provided $12 million in support to our students since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.  

The University has also been advocating for support from the State and Federal Government since the start of the pandemic. I was very pleased that the State Government announced funding of $45 million for international students last week including a $1,100 payment for those most in need. We’ll continue to lobby governments at a local and national level to seek support for our students and the higher education sector. 

Transition to online study 

Thank you for your continued patience and support as we navigate this crisis and particularly your support when we migrated our teaching online in March. We have had positive feedback on the online learning experience, with the recent student survey showing most students are happy with the rollout. 

However, I acknowledge that some students have had issues, and we’re working through your feedback to make improvements where we can. The move to online teaching has also required some adjustments to the Academic Calendar, including starting Semester 2 one week earlier. This change will accommodate the completion of face-to-face practical classes later in the year, assuming more restrictions are lifted. Keep a close eye on your student email, the LMS and the MyLaTrobe student channels for further updates.  

Staff changes 

Finally, I want to be upfront with you about some incredibly difficult decisions the University needs make in relation to our staffing because of the financial impact of COVID-19.

I know how much our students appreciate and value our staff, however COVID-19 has severely impacted our budget, with a shortfall of up to $150 million expected for this year alone. Unfortunately, this means that we cannot retain all of our staff. I wish this wasn’t the case, but we simply must make some changes to our operations to help with the long-term financial sustainability of the University.

We had hoped to receive support from the Federal Government, like every other industry across Australia, however the Government has decided to exclude universities from its JobKeeper program. JopKeeper would have injected $50 million into our accounts over the next 6 months. It would have made a huge difference to our ability to maintain all of our operations and retain staff. Regrettably, being ineligible means that we’ve had to make some very difficult decisions.

Despite these budget challenges, I assure you that we’re working incredibly hard to ensure that your subject delivery, course progression and student support services are not impacted by any of the staffing changes we’ve had to make. Some of you will have had a reduction in the number of tutorials offered, but your course will continue as normal and we’re very confident that you will continue to receive high quality teaching from other staff members.

I want to assure you that these changes will not impact critical student supports services like learning support, student wellbeing and careers and employability. It’s also important for you to know that the University has been working closely with our Student Associations and student leaders over the past few months to keep them updated on our situation and to ensure we are aware of any issues students have been experiencing.  

Thank you all for your continued patience and support as we navigate this crisis. I wish you well in the rest of your semester 1 studies online, and look forward to welcoming you all back to campus in the near future.

Professor John Dewar AO

Vice-Chancellor, La Trobe University