Up to 40 academics could be axed from the Australian National University's esteemed School of Culture, History and Language as it faces a budget deficit of $1.5 million this year.
An external review of the major languages teaching school within the College of Asia and the Pacific was completed in August and has recommended sweeping changes to governance, courses – including the Bachelor of Asian Studies – and the increasing use of online teaching for some languages.
This sits at odds with the university's commitment to the Asian Century, according to a number of affected academics.
Up to 100 staff working in the School have been told an announcement regarding their fate will be made on December 1 at an all-staff meeting.
Meanwhile, the National Tertiary Education Union confirmed it is aware that at least five staff had already accepted early retirement.
Union secretary Rachael Bahl said that there was no change-management document to detail the scope of job losses other than verbal directions by management that between 30-40 per cent of staff would need to go to get the school back in the black.
"Obviously staff are demoralised by the process. And obviously alongside these job losses would come a reduction in income and subsidies for the school."
Ms Bahl said the general feeling on campus was that "staff are bearing the brunt of poor management decisions in the past and excellent academic programs are now at risk because of short-sighted financial goals."
Morale has already plummeted at the school this year, with the review panel itself (made up of academics from Harvard, Duke, Hawaii and Macquarie university) finding "many staff have a deep seated distrust of, and lack of confidence in, management at the school, college and university level, and that many staff members feel threatened and constrained in their agency in regards to school and college matters."
"Many also feel undervalued at the school," it said.
Yet the school is considered one of the ANU's strongest research performers.
It houses four staff with prestigious Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowships – the highest number of such fellowships in any school – as well as seven Future Fellows, two Distinguished Outstanding researchers, a number of Discovery Early Career Researchers and a large group of past and present Discovery Project chief investigators.
The review panel suggested that the school may indeed be a victim of its own success, with the focus on high level research hampering its cost-effectiveness in teaching undergraduates.
"Perversely and paradoxically, the school's financial difficulties are in some part a reflection of this success, as a consequence of the sector's and the university's funding model."
While laureate and future fellows brought income through funding to the university, that funding did not cover all costs of employing such high-level research and the ANU placed any "gap" funding at the school level.
"The panel recommends that the university and college investigate ways of ensuring that success in attracting highly competitive and prestigious fellowships does not become a liability for areas that host fellows, for example, by establishing mechanisms for top-up funding that share the costs incurred by supporting fellowships."
It also warned that undergraduate student numbers had been on a gradual decline with the school attracting 42 per cent of the College of Asia and the Pacific student load in 2011 but that falling to just 28 per cent by 2014.
While the school offers 167 courses, it attracted just 434 students last year.
The review has recommended rationalising course offering, warning it was unsustainable to teach some of the courses, particularly in languages.
In 2014 the school had more than 100 courses with fewer than 20 enrolments and 20 courses with substantially fewer than 20.
The review acknowledged the ANU had already subsidised some languages through a language subsidy funding pool but ultimately "the overall distribution of enrolments does not make for a viable and sustainable teaching profile and needs to be addressed urgently."
This could be done by increasing online offerings for language courses, as had successfully been done in Sanskrit, which could earn the university a national and cross-institutional enrolment base.
The Bachelor of Asian Studies meanwhile is recommended for an overhaul to boost enrolments. Structural barriers and competition for students with the College of Arts and Social Sciences needed to be addressed in order for that to happen and degree offerings needed to be "increasingly focussed on the employability of students upon graduation," the review said.
Dean of the college Veronica Taylor said the review was "designed to ensure the long-term sustainability of the School which is widely recognised as one of the finest centres for research and education on Asia and the Pacific".
"ANU is considering the review recommendations and has not made any decisions regarding future staffing or budgets (and) will work closely with staff and the NTEU on any proposed changes.