Uni travel budget blows out

Deputy research and enterprise vice-chancellor Prof Richard Blaikie. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Deputy research and enterprise vice-chancellor Prof Richard Blaikie. PHOTO: ODT FILES
The University of Otago has overspent its travel budget for the year to date by nearly $1.5 million, but says it is still down on pre-Covid 19 levels.

The university council’s finance and budget committee’s latest agenda said the university had spent $10.45m on travel for the financial year to September, against a budget of $8.75m.

The travel budget for the full financial year is $11.33m, well up on the previous year’s budget of $9.1m.

The spending comes at a time when the financially troubled university is looking to make permanent cost savings of $60m to its operating budget, and has gone through several restructures and departmental reviews, leading to more than 120 job cuts in the past year.

A university spokeswoman said it looked at all expenditure to identify areas where savings could be made, including for work-related travel.

"More information will be provided to budget holders within the university to allow them to track carbon emissions from air travel, and therefore set appropriate expenditure to enable the challenging targets set for emissions reductions to be met," she said.

"Financial budgets will be set accordingly, with the natural result that travel expenditure will remain at levels significantly below where they were in 2019."

The spokeswoman said travel essential for university business would continue to be permitted.

"The university has, for example, seen great success in researchers winning major externally funded research grants in 2023.

"Many of these grants will include funding for travel to undertake the work, to present the work at international conferences or to engage with communities to translate the research findings into practice."

University head of sustainability Ray O’Brien said staff making decisions about travel also needed to consider if attending in person rather than online was necessary and how much travel the applicant had done already, while leave applicants needed to show they had considered their travel emissions and alternatives to travel.

Deputy research and enterprise vice-chancellor Prof Richard Blaikie said air travel was often essential for field research and networking, but it could not always be the automatic choice.

"Less air travel also helps reduce inequities.

"Academics in less privileged countries or with family commitments can attend online meetings more easily, benefiting everyone by boosting diversity in international forums," Prof Blaikie said.

The Taxpayers’ Union lobby group said it was disappointing the university had not responded to the changed financial climate.

Union policy adviser James Ross said "with universities up and down the country crying poverty, you might expect that they would start to trim the fat a tad".

"Instead, what we are seeing are tertiary institutes still living it large while begging for taxpayer handouts," Mr Ross said.

"Particularly for those members of staff who are being told their jobs are on the line if the University of Otago cannot balance the books, seeing that the university’s travel and accommodation budget has increased so dramatically will leave an extremely sour taste in their mouths".