Australian National University has halted construction work on its new student accommodation development as part of measures to cut spending amid the COVID-19 crisis.
While the full financial toll of the pandemic won't be known for some time, ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt said the cost to the institution would be measured "in the hundreds of millions of dollars".
Professor Schmidt, writing in an open letter to his colleagues earlier this month, said the pandemic represented perhaps the greatest challenge in the university's 75-year history.
He said that ANU had entered the crisis in a better financial position than most universities.
However, it needed to carefully manage spending to make sure it had sufficient cash reserves to operate through Semester 1 and meet its financial obligations and commitments.
ANU's governing council had agreed to three temporary cost-cutting measures, he said, including pausing some capital works projects and banking savings from travel which hasn't been taken.
It has also paused hiring staff until it could properly "on-board" new recruits. The university's campus has been forced to close during the pandemic, forcing teaching online.
The most significant project to be put on hold was the student accommodation development under construction on the Acton campus. Construction on the so-called SA8 project, which was at the early works stage, would be initially paused for six-months, Professor Schmidt said.
The university had been hoping to open the new development, which was expected to accommodate about 900 students, in time for the start of the 2021 academic year.
"The decision to pause some of our capital works has been difficult to make," Professor Schmidt said in message.
"We take our role in the Canberra community and its economy very seriously. We have taken the lightest touch possible to this whilst also ensuring our financial position is adequate for the present moment - we are balancing short-term needs with longevity and future financial security."
In a statement to The Canberra Times, an ANU spokesman indicated that it would have a clearer picture of the financial cost of the pandemic to the institution once more data on enrollments for this year and applications for the 2021 academic year came through.
How long Australia's borders remain closed to overseas visitors will have a significant bearing on the scale of the economic hit, given ANU's reliance on international students.
A recent report, published by Victoria University's Mitchell Institute, found fees from international students accounted for almost half of the student revenue at ANU, compared to 25 per cent for the University of Canberra.
The report estimated that the ACT's university sector could lose up to $250 million over the next three years if travel bans remained in place.
Some 4710 fewer international students arrived in Canberra in February compared to the same period in the previous year, largely as a result of travel bans imposed on China after the COVID-19 outbreak.
Professor Schmidt said in his message that the university was focused now on Semester 2 and working through how it "might mitigate most of the impacts that might affect our staff and students".
"My central goal is to do everything we can to minimise the impacts on both students and staff while ensuring a bright future for the university," he said.
"We have, at ANU, been very careful at controlling expenditure over the past 5 years, and my hope is, with a little luck, we can avoid some of the brutal disruptions we have seen across the world."
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