The University of New South Wales is pushing ahead with plans to build a new $1 billion campus in the heart of Canberra, despite the institution facing a massive budget hit from the COVID-19 crisis.
The Group of Eight university is reportedly staring down a budget shortfall in the hundreds of millions of dollars this year as a result of the pandemic, which has ravaged Australia's higher education sector.
Vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs earlier this month lamented the "inevitability" of significant jobs losses at the university as it implements far-reaching measures to cuts costs.
But despite the financial turmoil, UNSW Canberra this week reaffirmed its commitment to build a new 6000-student campus and security and defence-focused innovation hub on Constitution Avenue in Reid.
UNSW Canberra signed a "precinct deed" with the ACT government in March, which will see the territory hand over about eight hectares of land to the university under a peppercorn lease agreement.
In return, the university committed to spending about $1 billion to build a new campus over the next 15 years.
Planning Minister Mick Gentleman last week introduced legislation to the ACT Legislative Assembly to facilitate the land deal.
UNSW Canberra rector, professor Michael Frater, this week said it had recently wrapped up the first round of public consultation on the project, which will help inform a masterplan for the campus.
It has also made presentations to the National Capital Authority, which has planning oversight of the area, and the National Capital Design Review Panel, which provides input on major projects.
"It is all very much on track," professor Frater said of the project, which the ACT government estimates could inject up to $3 billion into the local economy.
"For the university this is a long-term plan, it is not just a flash in the pan."
Professor Frater said the COVID-19 pandemic had not altered the scope of the planned campus, which would also include on-site accommodation for students and some teachers.
However, he said the economic shock might force it to adjust the timeframes for building certain elements of the new campus. The campus - UNSW's second in Canberra - was always intended to be built in stages over the next decade and a half.
"We are not quite sure about the timeframes," professor Frater said.
"But remember, this [project] is not just about students, or international students ... there's the innovation precinct as well. It might be that some aspects run a little bit faster than we thought, it might be that some aspects run a little bit slower."
Professor Frater spoke with The Canberra Times after announcing local cyber security firm Penten as the anchor tenant of UNSW Canberra's innovation hub on Northbourne Avenue.
Launch on Northbourne is a precursor to the larger defence and cyber-security precinct planned for the new Reid campus.
The university is required to finalise its campus master plan before March next year, under the terms of its agreement with the ACT government. It plans to start construction work in early 2022, subject to various planning approvals.
The deed also requires the passage of laws to help facilitate the transfer of territory land to the university.
The legislation introduced last week would allow the government to hand over the prized land for below market rate. The laws would also prevent the university from transferring the lease for at least 20 years.