Federation University has faced recent questions over its future and persistent rumours about its offerings but vice chancellor Professor Helen Bartlett has assured students and staff that the university is going nowhere but ahead.
In a recent report the Victorian auditor general warned the long term viability of the university was in jeopardy after it recorded its first ever financial deficit, and a Federal Government freeze on funding has further increased the pressure.
But a raft of measures – including a restructure of faculties and schools – are underway to safeguard the university’s future in Ballarat.
Professor Bartlett said the current 12 faculties and schools were being streamlined in to six new schools with new deans being recruited to oversee them.
“These people will work with me and my senior team to take the university to the next stage,” Professor Bartlett said.
Changes will be seen as early as next month, with Professor Bartlett expecting all six new entities and deans to be in place before the end of the year.
Most of the existing deans have either retired or will do so once new appointments are made. They are among a “significant number” of staff who have left the university in the past year under an “early voluntary retirement program”.
In addition to the long-term sustainability of the university, the auditor general’s report drew attention to staff ratios.
“We are very well staffed here and our strategy is to look at our workforce … and how we deploy people and maximise the talent we have in our university which is all part of the transformation program. There will be opportunity to reshape the workforce in time, as any big organisation needs to do.”
The auditor general’s review of Victorian public universities, released last month, raised doubts over the long term viability of Fed Uni.
“While the overall sustainability of the sector continues to be strong, the indicators for … Federation University Australia are starting to show that they may face financial sustainability issues in the longer term,” the report stated.
“It would be prudent for these two universities to assess the relevance and financial sustainability of their current course offerings, as well as their staff profile.”
Professor Bartlett, who has been in the top job for a little over a year, said the attorney general’s report had not come as a surprise. “We were already on to it,” she said.
Professor Bartlett said the university was financially secure with good cash and asset holdings and the report did not mention investment in the new campus in Berwick.
Professor Bartlett said the federal government’s freeze on university funding would impact the new Berwick campus, which requires growth in the coming years, more than the Ballarat campus.
Federation University Australia are starting to show that they may face financial sustainability issues in the longer term.The auditor general's report.
She said there were no plans to cut courses in Ballarat, and expansion plans were well underway.
“We have two major bids in with partners that we are hoping will be funded – one to build a health care pathway that will start with a certificate IV then progress to a diploma and provide a pathway in to our degree … and another one in new and alternative energies,” she said.
”We are trying to focus on areas that are very relevant for this regional economy and putting a lot of effort in to that.”
Professor Bartlett urged Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to consider regional universities separately from city-based tertiary institutions in his university reform package.
“There are a whole lot of other factors in regional settings that need to be in the formula if we are moving toward performance related funding,” she said.
“Universities like ours contribute to the local economy, and a recent study found we contribute to the local GDP to the tune of $230 million, in addition to more than 1000 jobs in the local workforce, and that doesn’t include our tech park where there are 1400 people employed,” Professor Bartlett said.
“Some special consideration and acknowledgement needs to be made in a time when a regional university like ours is making every effort to be strategic and innovative and entrepreneurial and meet the needs of its market and its community.”