Take A Vice Chancellor’s Salary On Me

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Words || James Booth

On the 18thof June 2019, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Macquarie University’s Vice Chancellor Bruce Dowton is charging Macquarie University to hold events at his Sydney Central Business District property. 

The article identified that Professor Dowton has been charging the university between $43,000 and $48,000 annually to use the property, with the payments totalling $222,000 for the use of his home between 2014 and 2018. Here is the kicker though, the Vice-Chancellor purchased this property using an $875,000 loan drawn from the university in 2014 – this loan remains fully drawn, with annual interest repayments between $23,000 and $28,000.

There are a lot of numbers I’ve just shared with you, however the essential take away from this article is that the University is paying Professor Dowton approximately $20,000 more than repayments owed to the University – effectively paying for the loan, taken out from the University with the University’s money. It should be noted that a spokeswoman for the university identified that the costs for hosting functions at Professor Dowton’s residence were determined by an independent consultancy and are separate to the loan agreement. However, the release of this information to the public has led many students on Macquarie’s campus to wonder just where their student funds and university fees are actually going.

The aforementioned spokeswoman told the Sydney Morning Herald that “When [Professor Dowton] returned to Australia to assume his position, the university provided a loan to … assist with securing a Sydney residence suitable for hosting official university functions.” She also noted that the terms of the payments were reviewed annually, and the license fee agreement is separate to the loan agreement. 

A Vice-Chancellor is the executive head of an Australian university, they are responsible for day to day operations of the university, administrative duties, determining strategic direction and sustaining University relationships with its many key external stakeholder groups, including alumni, donors, and government. While it is understandable that this role would involve hosting functions for these stakeholders, it is unclear why the university has not invested this money into creating a facility for this to occur on campus.

News of Professor Dowton’s agreements with the University come alongside a revelation that the salaries of Australia’s Vice Chancellors are growing. Vice Chancellors at the University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney have salaries of $1.59 million and $1.53 million respectively. You read that correctly they are set to earn $1.5 million dollars for their role. Comparatively Professor Dowton receives a smaller salary, however he did receive an increase from $989,000 in 2017 to $1,010,000 in 2018. 

As the National Tertiary Education Union (‘NTEU’) president Alison Branes told the Herald, our Vice Chancellor has not “breached any university policy or done anything wrong. However in the context of a sector where over half of teaching is performed by people who are insecurely employed, it’s not a good look.” I think the pertinent point that Dr. Barnes makes in this statement is that the increase to the Vice Chancellor’s salary, and the news of the license fee agreement comes at a time where the pursuit of academia can leave university staff with trouble securing home loans, taking holidays and sick leave. Not to mention that the QS World University Rankings found that 31 out of 35 Australian tertiary education institutions went backwards in their staff-to-student ratio measure. Meaning that there are less staff employed by Australian institutions, less staff to accommodate for student learning, and an increase to Vice Chancellor salaries country wide.

Macquarie University is home to 44,000 students, who contribute to the Student Services and Amenities Fee which comes to just over $6.2 million dollars of income. International students are required to pay a commencement fee of AU$16,000 before they even start at Macquarie, these 11,732 International students are required to pay higher fees than their Domestic counterparts. With International students estimated to pay between $30,000-$36,000 annually to study at our University, and domestic students pay between $850-$1,423 per unit of study. When 26 of Australia’s 35 universities reported an increase in the proportion of overseas students, it becomes clear that the near uniform drops in faculty to student ratio Australia are the result of this.

The NTEU Macquarie University branch told members that “professional staff restructuring appears to be under way in a number of areas, with budget cuts high on the agenda.” These budget cuts were felt by student groups last year, and Grapeshot has also received a budget cut in the last financial year. It is understandable that students would feel frustrated at the news of the license and loan agreements between the Vice Chancellor and the University, when societies struggle to fund events on campus and the Student Representative Council only receives $202,000 for a year of student initiatives. 

It begs to question why the money for salary increases for university administration is not being used to support student engagement on campus, when our education and experiences are meant to be the heart of the institution. Andrew Norton, education expert of the Grattan Institute, told the Herald that the steady rise of Vice-Chancellor salaries is linked to 1990’s structural changes to tertiary institutions that have no led to universities transforming into business operations. 

On the 25thof June the University held a mid-year Town Hall, an initiative by the University to ensure regular communication for staff and keep them up to date with strategic priorities. It should be noted that Grapeshot Magazine inquired about access to the Town Hall, but no clarification was provided as to whether the publication could access and report on it. In a recent summary released to university staff it was noted that more than 700 Macquarie staff attended the Town Hall across six venues, with the Town Hall from the Macquarie theatre being live-streamed to several other venues across campus. It is worth noting that Macquarie Theatre has a capacity of approximately 485, making it unclear as to whether the six separate venues were fairly empty, or whether less staff than capacity were allowed access into the physical Town Hall to ask questions.

Key points summarised from the Town Hall were the current media focus on freedom of speech and academic freedom, and that they are of “fundamental importance to the life and vitality of a university”. A staff member of  the university informed Grapeshot Magazine that researchers are being pressured to confine their research into particular areas or to only publish in certain journals, including circulated lists of paces where you shouldn’t publish – so much for academic freedom. Grapeshot Magazine is hopeful that the stated “fundamental importance” of freedom of speech extends into student media, and that the University will uphold our freedom to critique the structures of our educational institutions.

In the 1stJuly 2019 summary, there was no mention of the reported loan and license agreements of the Vice Chancellor. It is unclear whether staff inquired about this during the Q & A portion at the time of this article being written, as no answers have been published online. The Grapeshot team is hopeful that the Vice Chancellor and Macquarie University administration will follow this mid-year town hall with a town hall for students to attend and seek further clarification. 

Grapeshot contacted the Vice Chancellor inquiring about holding a meeting with the Editors of the publication but received no response. We hope that moving forward we can receive more clarification and reiterate the stated intention for the University to uphold freedom of speech. Until then we’ll have to rely information on the finances of 2018 can be found in the Annual Report published on the Macquarie Website.