I trust that this message finds you and your families safe and well.
These are difficult times for all of us as we get used to new ways of living, learning and working while, at the same time, having to deal with the wide-range of uncertainties arising from the pandemic.
Recent news of the slowing of the spread of the virus is encouraging but we must prepare for many or all existing restrictions being in place for some time yet as the nation seeks to avoid a second wave of infections.
Universities have been hit hard by these restrictions but Flinders staff have responded brilliantly. Classes and other student-support activities were moved swiftly online, enabling the vast majority of our students to continue their studies. Once again, I thank everyone for their contributions to this rapid change in the way we deliver for our students.
Your ongoing efforts to engage students in the online sphere will ensure that they continue to get the most out of their studies under these difficult circumstances.
But make no mistake, there is much still to be done. When restrictions are lifted, as they will be, we must be ready to mobilise quickly in order to provide essential face-to-face components such as practicals, work placements and the like. Whatever you can do to plan in advance for that transition will help to smooth staff workloads and create the best possible outcomes for our students.
As you know, many students have been suffering some financial distress and I am pleased to say that almost 1,500 students have already received assistance from our new Student Hardship Package or will do so within days.
Part of that package includes the new Matthew Flinders Scholarship programme and I am delighted to say that there has been a tremendous response to my appeal for your support of this programme. I would like to sincerely thank everyone who has been able to join me in contributing to this appeal; your generosity speaks volumes for the strength and depth of Flinders’ values and our student-centred ethos.
Our important research work also continues. Some researchers are able to work from home and are now doing so. Others need access to equipment and physical resources and the University will keep these facilities open wherever possible (subject to strict social distancing and hygiene protocols) so that staff and research students can continue their essential work.
In addition to the continuation of their existing research programmes, our researchers have been in the vanguard of many projects designed to address the myriad issues arising from the pandemic. There are too many to list, but the speed and agility with which Flinders’ researchers are responding demonstrates the value of a research-intensive University such as ours; with a pool of talent ready and able to rise to meet pressing societal challenges.
Meanwhile, there is no escaping the profound financial impacts of the pandemic on almost every sector of the economy and universities are not immune. Indeed, many of you will have read about the scale of the budget deficits being faced at some other Australian universities.
Initial estimates indicated a potential revenue shortfall at Flinders of around $75m, but I am pleased to say that our strong Semester One figures mean that our position has improved and current estimates suggest a shortfall of circa $54m. Modelling our financial position is more complex than usual as we deal with a wide range of uncertainties and we will continue to monitor the situation closely.
It is perhaps worth noting that only $13m of our projected shortfall can be attributed to reduced international student enrolments, emphasising that the financial impacts of the pandemic extend well beyond our international activities.
The scale of our budget shortfall is significant but not insurmountable. The recent modernisation of our organisational structure and systems has meant that we are now fitter, stronger and better placed to rise to the challenge.
As you would expect, we have already implemented measures to mitigate the revenue shortfall. These include the postponement of capital projects, a reduction in non-essential expenditure and prudent management of vacancies and casual budgets to ensure that we fill only those roles identified as critical. We are also asking staff with excess leave accruals to develop 2020 leave plans with their supervisors.
As a result of measures like these, we can address around half of the required savings for 2020. This is a great start, but not yet enough to position us for the ongoing budget impacts that will pipeline through into 2021 and 2022.
Of course, the single most effective thing we can do is to boost our revenue. We have already done so by retaining students during our transition to online learning and by earning new research revenue. We must continue this great work for the rest of the year but also now turn our focus towards maximising commencements and enrolments into Semester Two and for the start of the 2021 academic year.
The coming weeks and months will be critical. I cannot be certain that further savings this year or next will not be required, but I am certain that the outstanding spirit and creativity that we have here at Flinders University will ensure that we can tackle these problems together in a measured and appropriate manner.
It is perhaps no surprise that there are a number of rumours spreading across the sector at the moment. One common rumour is that we might seek to reduce pay for all staff by 10, 20 or even 30 percent. While one must never rule anything in or out when facing so many uncertainties, I must advise that I am philosophically opposed to such a short-term fix. I believe that our staff should be paid for the work that they do, and very many of you are working as hard as ever as we tackle these new challenges. I therefore do not envisage us seeking to adopt this approach at Flinders.
Our clear focus must be on the long-term sustainability of our finances and on Flinders University remaining a destination of choice, albeit perhaps a more ‘virtual’ one than before.
In doing so we will emerge from the current crisis in the strongest possible position.
Meanwhile, please stay safe and healthy.
President and Vice-Chancellor