THE University of Newcastle's student body has called on the federal government to intervene and provide support to "avoid further crisis in the tertiary sector".
The call comes two days after UON Vice Chancellor Alex Zelinsky told staff details of measures to make $35 million of savings for 2021.
"We are currently anticipating a 33 per cent decline in commencing [international] student load in 2021," a UON spokesperson said.
"Uncertainty over border closures, visa requirements and competition nationally and internationally may lead to even greater declines."
University of Newcastle Students' Association (UNSA) - which has replaced Newcastle University Students Association - president Luka Harrison said the group was "concerned by the recent announcements and will be liaising with students, staff, and the university to ensure that the best possible outcome is reached regarding the education of students and the welfare of staff".
The measures announced include course optimisation, which Professor Zelinsky said could save UON $20 million; restructuring the five faculties to three colleges by 2021; and working with staff and unions on reducing leave - including the mandatory taking of 10 days as part of the New Year and Easter 2021 shutdowns - an early retirement scheme and changing the enterprise agreement to delay salary increases.
Professor Zelinsky has declined to speak to media until after August 10, the deadline UON has set to reach agreement with the unions.
The spokesperson said he "respects the process of ensuring our unions and staff have the first opportunity to discuss and agree on changes".
"He has provided statements to media on his forum announcements [on Wednesday]," the spokesperson said. "He's happy to talk to media once negotiations conclude."
The spokesperson said if agreement cannot be reached on August 10, UON " will commence alternate processes, potentially including redundancies, which will be undertaken in accordance with the university's existing processes and consistent with the enterprise agreement provisions".
Professor Zelinsky told staff on Wednesday it had saved around $24 million this year due to suspending capital works and spending and around $21 million by reducing discretionary spending, including a recruitment freeze, staff taking leave and no travel.
But there is an exception to the suspension of capital works.
The spokesperson said UON's Honeysuckle campus project - stage 1A commenced this year - was "on track".
"Funding for the Honeysuckle City Campus Stage 1A project was committed from previous annual budgets and through funds invested by the NSW Government's Restart NSW initiative," the spokesperson said.
"The contract for main construction was awarded in February 2020, prior to the pandemic."
Mr Harrison said while UNSA was concerned "for many staff members currently dealing with anxiety and uncertainty around their employment, we also sympathise with the university".
"The tertiary sector in general has been put under unprecedented financial pressure due to the current health crisis, but has been more or less abandoned by the federal government," Mr Harrison said.
"The COVID-19 crisis has revealed many underlying issues with the tertiary education model in Australia, and the federal government must overhaul this system and provide proper support for students and universities to avoid further crises in the tertiary sector.
"If the federal government provided adequate support for universities, the University of Newcastle would not be in this situation. UNSA will be closely monitoring the situation as it unfolds so as to ensure staff and students are treated fairly by the university."
The UON spokesperson said an external review of enabling programs Open Foundation, Newstep and Yapug, scheduled for September, is "unrelated" to the cost-savings measures and part of its "quality assurance processes".
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