Vice-chancellor reports encouraging progress

Last year was a year like no other and this year will be no less of a challenge. However, due to the outstanding efforts of the global research community, vaccines are rolling out and we can approach the year ahead with cautious optimism.

The same is true for Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington. Thanks to the hard work of staff, we have reduced our forecast 2020 year-end deficit of $19 million if interventions were not undertaken to a loss of $9.9m for the year. This loss was further reduced to $3.3m at the group consolidated level due to strong results from the University Foundation, reflecting the generosity of you, our alumni.

We should not be under any illusion as to how hard-won this financial outcome has been. It is a credit to staff and students throughout the University that, in spite of the many difficulties of 2020, research activity blossomed, course completion rates remained high, and there were very positive assessments by students of the teaching and services they received at the University.

In addition, I am pleased to report that we have buoyant domestic enrolments and better than expected international applications in spite of New Zealand’s closed borders. We currently have around 1,600 more domestic students studying with us than at the same time last year—a 10 percent increase and the biggest annual increase in domestic enrolments in our recent history. Very encouragingly, we have also seen very strong increases in Māori and Pasifika enrolments.

There are many reasons behind the increase in domestic enrolments. These include external factors, such as the societal impacts of the COVID-19 regulatory response and the increased number of school leavers with University Entrance. Nevertheless, there are also many people (and innovations) right across Te Herenga Waka that have contributed to this success. These include the academic and professional staff who provide such a high-quality student experience both inside and outside the classroom; the staff who went the extra mile to create some very sought-after new teaching programmes; the superb effort by the student recruitment, branding and marketing teams—both domestic and international—to promote what Te Herenga Waka and our city have to offer; the great work that went into the new pathway programmes (such as a provisional admissions pathway) and into the new delivery modes (dual-mode and online); and the commitment to various new student support initiatives such as the Trimester 2 fees-free scholarships, the additional hardship funding, and the equity initiatives in student accommodation services. These and many other contributions did the job we so determinedly set out to achieve.

In contrast, our international enrolments are unsurprisingly below this time last year. Nevertheless, they are significantly better than we initially forecastprimarily because of the rapid introduction of fully online courses that have allowed overseas students to continue to study with us from their home countries (i.e. ‘transnational’ education).

On the cost side, all areas of the University have been working hard to find ways to reduce their expenditure in line with their budgets while protecting as best they can our shared research and teaching mission. Sadly, we have also had to reduce the number of staff employed at Te Herenga Waka. Approximately 60 staff have decided in favour of voluntary redundancy and a similar number have either participated in recent prior rounds or have finished their fixed terms, retired or resigned without yet being replaced.

So where does this leave us regarding our progress towards the University Council-approved operational budget for this year of $430m with a core operating loss of $5m? Importantly, the budget gap has narrowed sufficiently for us to be confident that large-scale, whole-of-university compulsory redundancies are very unlikely to be required this year. We of course still need to keep a tight rein on operational costs and remain vigilant, given that, regardless of whether or not the borders reopen, we will face ongoing financial challenges in 2022 as we return the University to surplus to ensure we have the capacity to invest in our vision, purpose, iho, distinctiveness, and strategic objectives.

Fortunately, though, we now have a more stable position for 2021 and have bought ourselves a little more time to consider what changes we may wish to embrace to ensure the University will thrive into the future.

Finally, it has been good to see that the challenge of COVID-19 has clearly demonstrated the importance of independent, university expertise across a wide range of disciplines. At times such as this, we need strong, autonomous universities that can help solve problems facing our communities.

Thank you for all of your support during these challenging times—be that through supporting student scholarships in the alumni appeal or sharing message of support with our staff. It is deeply appreciated.

Grant Guilford