23 Jun 2023

Victoria University proposed cuts: Vice-chancellor says funding unsustainable

12:22 pm on 23 June 2023
Staff and students protest proposed cuts at Victoria University

Victoria University staff and students protest proposed cuts to jobs and subjects on Wednesday. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Victoria University of Wellington's vice-chancellor says proposed cuts to jobs and courses are the result of years of underfunding.

Te Herenga Waka is consulting on plans to axe 229 full-time equivalent jobs and would drop entire subjects, including secondary teaching. Tertiary Education Union branch president Dougal McNeill said the potential cuts would also eliminate subjects including German, Italian, Latin, tourism management, design technology, and geophysics.

University vice-chancellor Professor Nic Smith said the institution had been funded at about half the rate of inflation for the last decade. "That's resulted in almost a 20 percent cut in real term funding."

As well, the number of international students fell away during Covid-19 and had not returned, removing income used to help meet expenses.

Smith told Morning Report it was fair to ask why money had been spent on construction projects at the university recently, but it was not the basic issue.

"Possibly if you had looked retrospectively at the current storm that we've arrived in which is a post-Covid weak balance sheet, a lack of international students, a cost of living which is rising at unprecedented rates and a strong job market which has affected our enrolments, you might have made different decisions in terms of the capital programme.

"But how universities have invested in capital doesn't really speak to the fact that we have had to spend more than we've earned, and that's a sustainability issue.

Selling buildings or assets did not address that either, he said.

"Those questions are reasonable to ask but I don't think it addresses the fact that universities have not been receiving money to cover their costs for quite a long period."

The revenue from the 2017 sale of its Karori campus to Ryman Healthcare had been used to support university programmes, he said, but the reality was it had become harder to subsidise loss-making courses.

"The income from that campus was used to support teaching and other critical programmes - programmes that are going to continue in an ongoing way things like music therapy things like our third national language, sign language, religious studies ... all of which all require resource, all of which also require a cross subsidy internally.

"As the the government funding has steadily reduced our capacity to rise above pretty blunt economic signals and produce that cross-subsidy is also diminished."

Wellington representative on the Post Primary Teachers Association's Secondary Principals Council, Nic Richards, said the city would feel the national teacher shortage more keenly if Victoria's plan went ahead.

Smith said the university had to make the "books balance" on its programmes.

"You only have to look at the teachers strike and the issues with teaching conditions in secondary education to understand why students are not seeking to enrol in those courses," he said.

"It's hard for us to rise above the economic reality of that given the wider funding of the institution as a whole."

Secondary teaching was offered in multiple institutions across the country not just in universities, he said, "and they often have a quite lower cost base because they don't do the fundamental research that we do".

"I would continue to call upon (Education) Minister Tinetti and Prime Minister Hipkins to have a dialogue with us about what New Zealand needs and how we can deliver it ... provide a system that is sustainable."

Education Minister Jan Tinetti has indicated the government is considering the future of teacher education.

"I don't like seeing secondary teacher training or primary teaching going from anywhere but I think that's something we need to keep looking at is how we are training teachers in this country. Those are other discussions that we've got going on," she said.

Asked if the government could provide extra funding for Victoria, Tinetti said the government had asked for advice on options but all organisations, including universities, had to decide how to cope with rising costs.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs