Painting sold for A$21 million but 100 academics lose jobs

When the University of Sydney, Australia’s oldest and one of the wealthiest, sold a Picasso painting last June for nearly A$21 million (US22 million), few staff would have believed that six months later their jobs would be on the line.

The rarely seen painting, Jeune fille endormie, a 1935 portrait of Pablo Picasso's French mistress Marie-Therese Walter, fetched the second-highest price paid at a Christie’s auction in London.

The work had been given to the university by a US-based anonymous donor on condition that it was sold and the proceeds used to fund scientific research.

“When they gave us this remarkable work our donor said 'this painting is going to change the lives of many people',” said Sydney’s Vice-chancellor Dr Michael Spence.

But in an announcement last week, Spence indicated that the lives of at least 164 academics would certainly be changed, with 100 likely to lose their jobs and another 64 offered voluntary redundancy or teaching-only positions.

He said the job cuts were one of a series of measures to keep the university’s planned budget for the coming years “on track and in line with its strategic plan”.

The 100 academics listed for redundancy are believed not to have met the university's new requirement to produce a minimum of three research publications over two academic years.

The 64 offered voluntary redundancy were given the option to move to a “teaching-focused role” that would initially be for three years, after which there was “a possibility they could propose returning to a teaching and research role if agreed”.

“The need for this action is deeply regretted. I acknowledge this is a painful process for the university community,” Spence said in a media release. “The university is offering support to assist affected staff in working through this process.”

He added that further budget savings would be made in all administrative areas, including non-salary savings and reductions in the use of casual staff and contractors.

But the National Tertiary Education Union said the job cuts were the result of years of mismanagement, poor financial forecasting and “the prioritisation of non-essential building projects”. The union had earlier claimed the university was planning to slash overall staff numbers by about 340 positions out of a total of 7,500.

“The cuts come at a time when student enrolments are increasing and the university is enjoying a budget surplus,” said Michael Thomson, president of the union’s Sydney branch.

“They will inevitably lead to higher workloads for staff and fewer services for students. For the vice-chancellor now to claim that job cuts will improve morale shows that staff are right to have lost confidence in his ability to lead this institution.”

Thomson said the union had organised a mass meeting of staff and students outside the vice-chancellor’s office on 7 March, during the first week of the new term.

A university spokesperson said there were a variety of reasons for the cuts, including a substantial drop in expected student fee income and a huge backlog of necessary repairs and maintenance that had been identified by the state auditor general to cost $385 million.

There was also a requirement to upgrade teaching and research areas with improved IT, laboratory and teaching spaces that, along with normal library replacement and research and teaching equipment, would cost some $53 million this year.

“The fact is the university for many years has been living beyond its means,” the spokesperson said, noting that staff had been informed late last year of the need to reduce salary costs by $25 million and non-salary expenditure by $28 million. All administration areas were required to make a 7.5% saving on their budget expenditure.

Income from student fees was forecast to be down by $51million in 2011 and 2012, below the original target set in the university’s 2011-15 strategic plan.

International student enrolments had dropped, as they had across the higher education sector, the spokesperson said. But while demand from domestic students remained high, this year saw a higher level of deferrals and students electing to take fewer units of study, with fee income dropping accordingly.

* In what appears to be a move to boost a sharp fall in the number of students from China, the university announced last Wednesday that students who had completed the national education entrance examination, the Gaokao, and attained a Tier One result, could apply directly for admission into an undergraduate programme – provided they met the English language and special entry requirements.

In the past, the students would have had to undertake a foundation studies year before being eligible to apply for direct admission. More than 4,000 Chinese students are already studying at the university.