The financial impact of COVID-19 on Queensland tertiary institutions hit home on Tuesday morning when it was announced that CQUniversity had accepted 182 staff requests for voluntary separation.
Described as the latest actions in a recovery plan to reduce the university's cost base, CQUniversity vice chancellor Nick Klomp said its Sunshine Coast campus, and Yeppoon and Biloela study centres would also be closed this year.
The two central Queensland sites are expected to be closed on June 30, and Noosa on December 24.
These and other cost reductions will recover $28m annually for the university. It employs around 3000 full-time, part-time and casual employees, across a campus network that incorporates Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Emerald, Rockhampton, Gladstone, Bundaberg and Brisbane, as well as interstate capitals.
According to Professor Klomp, COVID-19 had caused businesses of all kinds to re-think their operations to ensure their long-term sustainability.
"CQUniversity will emerge as a stronger, more resilient university, which is why we need to take these difficult steps today," he said.
"The selflessness of staff today will be a huge contributor to the long-term sustainability of CQUniversity, as we continue to serve our communities for decades to come."
He said that despite the university's best efforts, current and projected student growth in the three regions had not met their expectations and therefore closure was the most viable and responsible course of action to take.
Ken O'Dowd, the federal Member for Flynn, said news of the cuts was unpalatable but had to be made to keep the university viable.
"Any closure of a business in our rural communities is a loss to the region," he said. "It's important to train locals for local jobs and keep people within our regions to support jobs growth."
After speaking with the university, he confirmed that students enrolled at Biloela were online students, and that school students undertaking a Certificate II in Electrotechnology as part of the VET in Schools program were due to complete their qualifications prior to the campus closure.
"CQUniversity intends to continue delivery of VETiS through partnerships with the local schools," he said.
He understood there were three staff members at the Biloela campus, two full-time and one part-time.
Mr O'Dowd said it was good to see the Gladstone campus, where a new training centre had been opened a month before the onset of pandemic restrictions, was still open.
"There are no doubt students will still come to it; the facilities are state of the art and will attract the students we need.
"But it's the overseas students that have fallen out and this is what the university has got to contend with."
Rather than confirm that the lack of international students was at the root of the problem, Professor Klomp said the COVID-19 crisis had profoundly affected the entire Australian higher education sector.
"All universities must adapt their business models to not just survive but thrive post-pandemic, we must find cost savings, improve efficiencies and enhance our products and markets," he said.
"CQUniversity is not expecting to onboard any new onshore international students in term two 2020 due to travel restrictions. It is likely this may also continue into 2021."
Professor Klomp said the university would not consider any forced staff separations until details of a sector-wide negotiation between Australian universities and the National Tertiary Education Union were finalised.
"I want to acknowledge staff who have made the decision to depart the university on their own terms via the voluntary separation process.
"I also want to acknowledge the entire CQUniversity community - our staff, students, and dedicated supporters - in Noosa, Yeppoon and Biloela.
"We are making every effort to ensure our students on the Sunshine Coast - only 16 per cent of whom study on-campus - have the opportunity to see out their studies through local partners or new purpose-built facilities in Brisbane.
"While our on-campus activities in Yeppoon and Biloela are minimal, we have options in place for improved online delivery, and on-site training for local high school students studying VET courses.
"Importantly, we are in discussions with staff from all three sites, to ensure those not receiving a voluntary separation either have the opportunity to request one now, or can be transitioned to other working arrangements."
Professor Klomp said the $28m cost saving wouldn't cover the full projected revenue shortfall, but represented a significant portion of the overall costs needed to recover in the long term.
"We are looking carefully at the national negotiations between universities and the NTEU, as this may allow us to recover even more costs through measures other than staff separation.
"However, we won't commit to any revised enterprise agreement conditions until we have carefully analysed the details; the pay and conditions of our valued staff are just too important to rush into any decisions.
"Once we know more, we will be a in a position to comment on further recovery plans beyond those announced today."