Uni rocked by deficits, protests, resignation

Helen Nicholson speaks at the Otago University stop work meeting at the Union Hall in September....
Helen Nicholson speaks at the Otago University stop work meeting at the Union Hall in September. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
For good, or bad, these "newsmakers" were the people making headlines in 2023.

The University of Otago was in the news throughout the year, often for reasons they probably did not desire.

The resignation of vice-chancellor Prof David Murdoch, the reports of large deficits, protests against staff cuts and ongoing restructuring, meant it was a tough year for many in the institution.

During most of this period, Prof Helen Nicholson has been the acting vice-chancellor, after Prof Murdoch went on sick leave in February and eventually stepped down in June.

Prof Nicholson had also served as acting vice-chancellor for nearly a year in 2021 when the university was in between appointments.

When questioned by reporters at a media briefing in April about whether she considered stepping down from the role, she replied: "I am acting vice-chancellor and I was hoping I might retire soon".

"It is not the most comfortable position, no."

The April media briefing came after the university announced a $60 million annual budget gap needed filling — with salary savings a significant component.

The announcement came at a time when it was already experiencing some turbulence: figures released by the university under the Official Information Act showed staff turnover increased 70% from 8.7% in 2020 to 14.8% in 2022.

Since the April announcement, more than 120 jobs have been cut through voluntary redundancies and departmental restructures.

More departmental reviews are set to follow this year, with the expectation that more staff will be cut.

At the Tertiary Education Union’s stopwork meeting in September, Prof Nicholson acknowledged it was a "challenging" and "unusual" time for many staff, and appreciated the good relationship the university had with the unions.

It had gone from more than two decades of positive finances to facing significant deficits in recent times.

That was because of systemic problems with the way the institution was funded, not financial mismanagement.

The university received up to 80% of its funding from the government, and that funding had not kept pace with inflation, Prof Nicholson said.

In December, the university council released its draft budget for 2024.

It forecast a deficit of nearly $29m, while its financial forecasting aimed for a break-even budget in 2025, and a return to an operating surplus in 2026.

There were also signs in the budget commentary that the level of staff cuts might not be as severe as initially proposed.

It has embarked on an international hunt for a new vice-chancellor.

Will it be an opportunity to do something fresh and innovative?