Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt has hit back at critics of universities and highlighted the university's role in combating the coronavirus crisis in a speech marking 74 years since the institution was founded.
Delivered to a small crowd at Llewellyn Hall and streamed online, the Foundation Day address came as the ANU claimed was confident it would achieve its savings goals after the budget blew out by $220 million.
"During this crisis, universities have been among the hardest hit and least assisted of all Australian institutions," professor Schmidt said.
"Despite this, we've played a huge role in the national response."
Professor Schmidt said 35 members of the academic staff had been seconded to government departments to provide health-related policy advice during the pandemic.
He said ANU researchers had been on the frontline of developing a virus testing program and investigating ways to use sewage to gauge the transmission of the virus.
"To the critics of universities, I say the only culture wars under way on Australian campuses right now are those taking place in a Petri dish," he said.
Professor Schmidt said the ANU should play a role in navigating the country through a new period of global uncertainty, harking back to the institution's original purpose of post-war reconstruction.
"We are walking into a future where geopolitical uncertainty is threatening to place restraints on global free trade, where relations with our biggest trading partner could likely worsen, and where the erratic policy direction of our biggest security partner could cause us added trouble," he said.
"Change is inescapable, especially in the world of universities. But as things continue to change, we don't want to become a national university in name only.
"We are determined to play as big and useful a role as we possibly can in Australia's evolving story."
The vice-chancellor published new figures last week with an unaudited breakdown of revenue, expenditure and cash flow.
The figures showed the university was on track to have $278.8 million in cash reserves by December 31, including an insurance payout.
However, uncertainty over the number of international students enrolled in semester two placed $77.1 million of expected revenue at risk.
Consultancy and contract revenue associated with research milestones and income from commercial tenants could also fluctuate by the end of the year.
The university took out a $200 million loan to spend on capital and one-off items.
The ANU received a $41 million insurance payout for a claim on the Chifley Library and an initial payment on the hail damage claim. When money earmarked for library repairs was taken into account, the university would have $237.8 million in cash reserves by the end of the year. The ANU council required $250 million in cash by December 31.
Staff narrowly voted to defer a scheduled 2 per cent pay rise in July, saving $6.75 million this year. Senior management too a 10 per cent pay cut for the second half of 2020 and the vice-chancellor took a 20 per cent pay cut over this period.
Professor Schmidt said everyone had made sacrifices during the tough financial times.
"And we are going to do our best to get things back to normal. Just how long this takes is unfortunately out of our hands," he said.