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Uni insists finances sound after leaders' abrupt departure

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The University of Adelaide insists there is “no risk” it will become insolvent and “no suggestion of financial impropriety” behind the sudden departures of its chancellor and vice-chancellor within 24 hours, as the State Government flags a radical plan to bring international students back to South Australia.

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Chancellor Kevin Scarce, SA’s former governor, this week abruptly ended his tenure at the university six months early, with Deputy Chancellor Catherine Branson emailing staff that the decorated rear admiral had “informed the University’s Council that he will bring forward the end of his term as Chancellor to today, 4 May 2020”.

The following morning, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Mike Brooks informed staff “that the University Council has endorsed the Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Peter Rathjen AO, taking special leave for an indefinite period”, with Brooks to take over his roles in an acting capacity.

Neither departee has yet responded to direct inquiries from media outlets.

However, in response to a series of questions from InDaily today, the University issued a further statement, insisting “the recent announcements are not in any way related to the financial health of the University or the impacts of COVID-19”.

Tertiary institutions have been rocked by border restrictions, with Adelaide Uni – which is heavily reliant on international students from China, who have been unable to travel to attend in-person lectures since the beginning of the year – considered among the most vulnerable.

“The University, like many institutions, is facing a budget shortfall due to COVID-19, but is in a sound financial position and is expecting a strong recovery after the pandemic has ended,” a spokesman said in a statement.

“There is no risk of the University becoming insolvent.

“There is no suggestion of financial impropriety.”

The statement said the University was “continuing with its world-class education and research under the leadership of the Acting Vice-Chancellor and the Deputy Chancellor” and was “not in a position to comment further”.

Premier Steven Marshall today said he “hadn’t had an update” about the situation at Adelaide Uni, but minutes later conceded he had however “spoken to the Deputy Chancellor and offered any support”.

“We’ve got a lot of work we’ve got to do with the university sector in SA and how we respond to the COVID-19 crisis,” he said.

“We want to make sure we can get our uni and TAFE students back to face-to-face learning as quickly, but as safely, as we possibly can… and obviously we also have the issue of international students [which] is our largest export out of SA.”

Marshall said the Government was considering a model based on its recent repatriation of returning Australian travellers, the last of whom yesterday returned to their home states after a two-week isolation period in quarantined city hotels.

“We had enormously good success with repatriating Australians via the Pullman and Playford hotels [so] we’ve been looking at that model and, when it’s safe to do so, we’re thinking of a pilot [program] to bringing back international students using that same two-week supervised quarantine and isolation,” Marshall said.

He said the matter was “not for immediate resolution [but] we would like to be able to sit down with the universities soon to plan out that road map back”.

A plan to merge Adelaide and the University of South Australia fell over in 2018, with insiders suggesting Adelaide was left more vulnerable as a result, given its undergraduate programs are largely used to offset significant research costs.

It’s understood the respective financial positions were a factor in the merger plan falling over, as was a stipulation by UniSA that its vice-chancellor David Lloyd would step in at the helm of the new entity.

Former UniSA chancellor Jim McDowell, who InDaily revealed was highly critical of public comments made by Rathjen at the time about the proposed merger, is now the CEO of Marshall’s Department of Premier and Cabinet, overseeing the Government’s coronavirus recovery program.

Various insiders have told InDaily they believed the relationship between Scarce and Rathjen was strained, although none claimed that was a factor in either man’s departure.

In her email, Branson thanked Scarce “for his significant contribution to the University over almost six years” saying he had “led Council during an important time of transition, when the University’s world rankings and its role in the South Australian community have continued to rise”.

“His term as Chancellor has encompassed the opening of the state-of-the-art Adelaide Health and Medical Sciences building, which is a critical part of the Biomed City Precinct, the adoption of a new strategic plan, and a stronger focus on outcomes for South Australia’s industry and community,” she wrote.

Brooks told staff he was looking forward “to working with the University community over the coming period as we further respond to the challenges posed by COVID-19 and continue to ensure that our University provides a world-class quality of education and research”.

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