“UNION Power” echoed through the halls as staff and students took action at Churchill’s Federation University campus last Wednesday (May 1) after the university’s announcement to cut 200 jobs to save $20 million in costs.

Clad in the National Tertiary Education Union purple, concerned staff and students gathered at the ‘Knuckle’ of the Churchill Campus as the president of the NTEU demanded the cuts be reconsidered and the resignation of the Vice Chancellor, Duncan Bentley.

“Staff and students are gathering here at the Churchill campus today to call on our Vice Chancellor to withdraw his devastating proposal to cut 200 full-time equivalent positions from our small institution,” the branch president of the NTEU, Mathew Abbott, told the Express.

Dr Abbott, a Senior Humanities and Social Sciences Lecturer at Federation University and the president of the National Tertiary Education Union branch, said the redundancies were an illogical decision.

Federation University Australia’s Annual Report for 2023, which was tabled in the Victorian State Parliament earlier last week, found ongoing financial effects of a downward trend in student enrolments and issues with international student visa arrangements.

The university’s report recorded a big deficit for the second successive year with a revenue drop of about $80 million.

The union says the cuts come after years of turmoil, with mass redundancies, restructures, student support and course cuts.

“For this proposal to come at the tail end of that period really blindsided staff and students here. We do not believe our university can sustain cuts of this scale after this period,” he said.

“Cutting away 200 full-time equivalent positions that could amount to hundreds of individual staff members (which) is exactly the opposite of what’s needed. That’s going to take away our courses … it’s likely to harm our student support services in quite a substantial way, learning skills advisors and others – people who play a crucial role in supporting our students.”

With only 13,344 students in 2022, Federation University is among the smallest public universities in the country.

In 2024, around 580 students are enrolled at the Gippsland Campus for Semester 1. This figure is slightly down on the same time last year, when the campus had around 600 students commencing studies for semester 1.

The university recorded a net operating deficit of $81 million in 2023, with a one-off impairment of $22.8 million of franking credits receivable from Australian taxation, resulting in a larger-than-anticipated deficit.

“The university’s financial problems are quite real. The issue, though, is who is responsible for that and who led us into that position?” the union president, Mr Abbott said.

“Senior management likes to say it has been a difficult period for the sector, and while that’s true, other universities have fared much better through this period.”

The pandemic was a trying time for the tertiary education industry as revenue from international students due to border shutdowns was lost; Federation felt the pinch then but continued to do so with the current migration policy.

Speech: Fed Uni delegate, Carl Buttler spoke at the rally. Photograph: Zaida Glibanovic

The number of international students attending Federation fell by 49 per cent between 2019 and 2023, causing a drop of $79.1 million in the university’s revenue. This has led to significant operating deficits in recent years which is not sustainable, a Federation University spokesperson said.

The Department of Home Affairs has given Federation the highest risk rating alongside two other public institutions, the University of Tasmania and the University of New England. This indicates that too many non-genuine students or those utilising student visas to enter the labour market have been discovered as being enrolled at certain universities and their partners. Thus, all international applications for student visas to Federation were subjected to heightened scrutiny from immigration authorities.

“Our visa risk rating is the lowest possible rating, and that’s impacting our international student revenue,” said Mr Abbott.

The union recognises the financial hardship of the university but believes poor management has contributed to issues festering.

“This poor decision-making and these mistakes that keep getting made are absolutely at the heart of the financial problems that we face,” Mr Abbott said.

“As we stand up against these cuts we’re also calling for decent and competent management for some stability and security.”

It remains unclear where the proposed redundancies will take place within the institution. Mr Abbot said the uncertainty was “distressing and upsetting” as “almost ongoing staff members are now fearing for their future, their livelihoods, their careers and their families”.

Catriona Jackson, Universities Australia’s Chief Executive, told the Australian Financial Review that federal government policy was significantly affecting the tertiary industry’s funding.

Upset: Students and teachers on Federation University’s Gippsland Campus came out in numbers to show their concern. Many staff members are in fear they might lose their jobs. Photograph: Zaida Glibanovic

“Constant changes to policy and funding settings have resulted in caps on university places and government investment in research and development falling to its lowest share of gross domestic product,” she said.

“The corrosive policy and funding uncertainty has made the kind of planning any major institution must carry out difficult. COVID-19 compounded these issues, throwing up a set of new and unique challenges.”

A Scholarly Teaching Fellow at the Churchill Campus, has been at the university for eight years but is concerned for staff welfare if the proposed cuts go through.

“My concern is that if we try and push people with already high workloads to do more, there will be more stress placed on them, which will result in a poorer experience for staff and, ultimately, students,” they said.

“I care about the local community, and I care about its future. Most of my students that come and attend mostly prefer face-to-face, and the more we push online, the less likely we are to have that experience that students crave.

“With such heavy workloads, so much instability, and many of us feeling exhausted and burn-out, it’s the students who ultimately suffer as a result of job cuts.

“Students we talk to are unhappy with the education that they are receiving at Fed. Many of them report feeling short-changed. The idea of them being taught by a bot is not their idea of an immersive learning experience.”

Federation University’s main campus is located in Ballarat, with other campus locations in Horsham in western Victoria and Berwick in Melbourne’s south-east.

NTEU members at Federation University held an all member meeting two weeks ago, where they vowed to join protests at the university’s three major campuses to oppose the ‘Future Fed’ cuts proposal.