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Northern exposure: Embattled Adelaide Uni eyeing off new campus

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Adelaide University’s departed leadership team had been working towards establishing a new northern suburbs campus in a bid for new enrolments, InDaily can reveal.

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A university source who declined to be named has told InDaily that Vice-Chancellor Peter Rathjen – who this week was granted indefinite leave by the institution’s governing council just a day after the abrupt resignation of Chancellor Kevin Scarce – has held high-level meetings about a satellite campus, calling the move a “scramble for students” as the uni chases higher enrolments.

It comes as the state’s Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Bruce Lander sensationally declared he was investigating allegations of “improper conduct” against Rathjen – and the way in which the university dealt with them.

There is no suggestion whatsoever that this allegation relates to the prospective new campus, and the uni has previously ruled out any suggestion of financial mismanagement or impropriety.

The prospective facility would be set up in direct competition with the University of South Australia’s Mawson Lakes campus, as a bid to capitalise on technology and defence job opportunities.

In response to inquiries, a University of Adelaide spokesperson confirmed in a statement: “The University of Adelaide and the City of Playford are exploring ways of increasing access to higher education for residents in the Playford region.”

“Early discussions have been positive but are at an early stage… the University will continue to work with the City of Playford on this initiative.”

The City of Playford confirmed it “has had, and is open to having discussions with universities to secure a strong university presence in Playford”.

Mayor Glenn Docherty said the council’s role was “to influence, create opportunities and advocate on behalf of our community for high quality services within our city”.

“The City of Playford is uniquely positioned for the expansion of the university sector in Greater Adelaide and holds a unique and strategic geographic position as gateway to the state’s fast growing suburbs – centre of the northern suburbs, close to the mid-north farming communities and we house state significant industries in health, defence, horticulture and advance manufacturing,” he said in a statement.

Acting Vice Chancellor Professor Mike Brooks last night telling staff in an email that “the University’s senior executive team and I are fully committed to steering our institution through the coming period”.

“We have the full support of Council to do this and together we remain very confident about the future of our University,” he wrote.

“We have many great opportunities ahead of us and also some challenges…

“You may also have seen or heard speculation about the financial viability of our University. I want to assure you that the events of this week are in no way related to the financial health of the University or the impacts of COVID-19.

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

He said first and second semester domestic enrolments have held steady, while international enrolments are up 5 per cent on the previous year’s first semester “and projected to be down 16 per cent in second semester”.

“Given that we were budgeting for more significant growth this year, this equates to a downturn in budgeted revenue of circa $90 million,” he wrote.

“When added to increased costs associated with responding to COVID-19, the University is facing a $100m shortfall this year.”

He noted “several east coast universities are forecasting shortfalls far in excess of ours”.

“Accordingly, the University has put in place a number of measures to buffer our institution from this shortfall, including: a staff recruitment freeze, a pause on new capital works, revised Faculty and Divisional budgets, development of new sources of revenue, including online short courses and micro-credentials, and research funding from major schemes, linked with industry and government need,” Brooks wrote.

“We may also draw upon short-term borrowings if required… our current borrowings sit at $50m which is very modest for a research-intensive institution.”

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