Some university staff being redeployed

Helen Nicholson. Photo: ODT files
Helen Nicholson. Photo: ODT files
The University of Otago is looking to make some of its staff cuts through redeploying previously axed staff, not filling vacant positions, and not renewing fixed-term contracts.

The institution released its draft budget for 2024 earlier this month. Its deficit was expected to balloon to almost $29 million next year.

Acting vice-chancellor Prof Helen Nicholson sent shockwaves through the campus in April when she announced significant cuts would be needed to fill a $60m hole.

"Hundreds" of jobs could be affected, she said at the time.

However, the university’s messaging appears to have changed with the release of the draft budget, and a spokeswoman provided the Otago Daily Times with a statement.

She said 118 individuals had now accepted voluntary redundancy this year, with 56 professional staff and 62 academic staff affected.

Some roles were being phased out, which did not take effect until next year.

"In some cases professional staff in disestablished roles have been redeployed to vacant positions elsewhere.

"Fulltime equivalent reductions for 2024 are also being achieved through the non-renewal of a number of fixed-term positions and through leaving a number of vacant permanent positions unfilled."

Tertiary Education Union co-president Brandon Johnstone said this strategy was preferable to broad-based cuts across the sector.

"Redeployment is obviously better than tossing good people out the door.

"While this approach is still cutting staff, it’s at least a marked shift in messaging. The cuts have definitely slowed down."

He said there was "still a question mark" over the university’s strategy in the long term.

"It’s contingent on a number of variables, not least student numbers returning to previous peaks."

Otago University chief financial officer Brian Trott said its financial forecasting aimed for a break-even budget in 2025, and a return to an operating surplus in 2026.

Protect Otago Action Group spokesman Dr Olivier Jutel said he was pleased that fewer staff would likely be affected by cuts than previously thought, but the strategy was risky.

"The pressure for the university to return to surplus in 2026 is immense. If we don’t get the students, then a stiff financial wind could blow us over."