20 Apr 2023

University of Otago proposes cutting 'several hundred' jobs

4:23 pm on 20 April 2023
The University of Otago clocktower building.

Photo: RNZ / Don T

Several hundred University of Otago staff may be made redundant and further job cuts are likely as the university grapples with a drop in enrolments.

Acting vice-chancellor Professor Helen Nicholson told students in an email the university was considering a number of hard decisions to ensure it was sustainable into the future.

"This includes the possible redundancies of several hundred academic and professional staff positions. Applications for voluntary redundancy will open next week, and more job cuts are likely later in the year," she said.

In a media release, Nicholson said the university started the year in a challenging financial position with an expected deficit budget that required substantial savings to achieve.

She confirmed the university's annual operating budget needed to be reduced by about $60 million, saying salary savings would need to be a significant component.

"It is likely that this will result in changes across the entire university."

Drop in domestic enrolments

Overall, student enrolments were down by 0.9 percent on last year, with international students up by about 495 while domestic student numbers were down by about 670.

The drop in domestic students was due to fewer gaining entrance nation-wide and many entering the workforce or taking a gap year instead, as well as an unexpected drop in student retention, Nicholson said.

"This was, likely, caused by factors including the cumulative impact of ongoing Covid-19 disruption, the rising cost of study, and a buoyant job market.

"This means our domestic pipeline for students over the next three years will be worse than we projected, with associated effects on our bottom line.

"What all of this means is that we are worse off today than we predicted in February, and we need a new plan," she said.

Hundreds members rallied for better pay and working conditions at the University of Otago on 11 October, 2022.

Hundreds rallied for better pay and working conditions at the University of Otago on 11 October, 2022. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

No government funding to counter the rising cost of living

She cited the ongoing failure of government funding to keep up with rising costs as another reason for the tough decisions.

"The university is reviewing everything it does over the next 18 months.

"We will be carefully choosing the activities we deliver, so that we can work towards fixing our current financial issues but also to allow ourselves room to innovate and invest in continuing to deliver high quality papers and programmes."

More changes to come

The acting vice-chancellor signalled possible changes to what was on offer at the university, but sought to assure current students they would not miss out.

"You will be able to complete the qualification and papers you are currently enrolled in, even if there are future changes to the papers and programmes we offer," she said in the email.

"Changes like these, affecting staff and students, our academic offerings and other activities, are not made lightly.

"We will proceed carefully and expect to be able to share more information in the next couple of months."

The university is developing a strategic plan, Pae Tata - Strategic Plan to 2030, to detail the next seven years and what it will need to do.

An all-staff forum will be held in about six weeks to discuss the next steps.

"If we do nothing, and even if our enrolments recover more quickly than we expect at our current rate, we will still have a budget in the red for several years. That is not tenable for us as a university," Nicholson said.

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