Policy has ‘not helped’ university's woes

Failure to apply a policy aimed at keeping the ballooning number of low-enrolment papers in check has "not helped" the University of Otago’s financial woes.

The university, which has more than 500 papers below its own enrolment threshold, attributed the omission to the disruption of Covid-19.

A spokeswoman said university leaders had not wanted to burden busy staff with the audits required by its papers, enrolments and the use of resources policy — but a working group was now reviewing the situation.

The hundreds of low-enrolment papers had "not helped" the university’s current financial problems, although the two main factors were government funding lagging behind inflation along with "changing enrolment patterns".

Papers with low enrolment numbers are required to be audited every two years under the university policy, last revised in September 2020.

Academic divisions are required to provide detailed cases for a paper’s continuation to the academic deputy vice-chancellor to decide if a paper will be cut.

Prof Helen Nicholson. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Prof Helen Nicholson. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

From 2021, this role has been held intermittently by acting vice-chancellor Prof Helen Nicholson.

The enrolment policy’s stated aim is to ensure papers are "still viable in terms of resources required compared to enrolment numbers".

"Papers falling below the following enrolment numbers will be included in the audit process: 30 enrolments at 100 level; 15 enrolments at 200 level; 10 enrolments at 300 level; three enrolments at 400 level and above."

The university plans to cut up to several hundred staff in a push to save $60 million, despite the Government’s announcement on Tuesday it would boost funding to the university by an estimated $21 million over the next two years.

The university called the funding boost a step in the right direction, but said it did nothing to help its immediate circumstances.

Some papers are also set to go.

At a staff meeting last month, Prof Nicholson told attendees that of 4000 papers, 506 did not meet the enrolment policy threshold.

"In the past we have said, ‘All right, you can do it’ — but we are not in that situation any more.

"We have some papers and programmes that attract very few students.

"If we lose them we are not going to lose significant students, I suggest, but we do make savings as every paper adds complexities to enrolments."

Too much choice created anxiety for students post-pandemic, she added.

Of the 506 low-enrolment papers, university data showed that 360 were standard papers, while the rest were project, research, or "special topic" papers.

Of the standard papers, 85 were at 100 level, 58 were at 200 level, 52 were at 300 level and 165 were papers at 400 level or above.

Almost one-quarter of undergraduate papers had fewer than 15 students, while the threshold needed for the university to break even was between 12 and 15 students per paper.

The university spokeswoman did not answer questioning by ODT on how many papers had been reviewed since 2021.

"In the past we have been in a more fortunate position where we have been able to apply flexibility. We are not in that situation any longer," the spokeswoman said.

"As a result of the disruption caused by Covid and the fact much of our staff’s focus was on caring and delivering teaching to students in complex situations over this period, not all business was able to operate as usual.

"The senior leadership team recognised that staff were very busy over this time and as good employers they could not ask more of staff."

Asked what responsibility Prof Nicholson had for the situation, the spokeswoman said Prof Nicholson was acting vice-chancellor in 2021.

The university spokeswoman pointed to Prof Nicholson’s intermittent time in the role of academic deputy vice-chancellor and said after returning to it last year, she established the working group.

The group had three areas of focus, one of which was looking at papers with low enrolments.

Another was simplifying the structure of programmes, while the final focus was making it easier for students to enrol and choose appropriate papers and programmes.