The Australian National University vice-chancellor has defended the decision to buy a $17 million block of land from the ACT government despite suffering the impact of COVID-19 worse than other universities and hundreds of job cuts.
ANU bought two sites in the city last April, including a bus layover site on Marcus Clarke Street. The ACT government allowed the payment to be deferred 12 months due to the pandemic.
"While we could have potentially reneged on our commitment, that piece of land - which will be irreplaceable to the future ANU - would be forever lost if we had not done so," vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt told staff and students late Friday.
Professor Schmidt said ANU was hit harder financially than most universities because it decreased student intake in 2020 while other institutions increased numbers to boost revenue.
Professor Schmidt said the university could borrow money for capital expenditure such as the land deal, but couldn't for operating costs, including salaries.
"We have to be careful we do not need to borrow too much money such that we cripple the university through its repayment, but we also need to ensure we don't make decisions that cripple ANU by not investing in the things that allow us to be a great university in the future."
Prof Schmidt said the land was very important and ANU was looking at how to make money from it.
"Similar things might come up in the future, but you'll not see me making decisions to sacrifice jobs for capital expenditure," he said.
The National Tertiary Education Union slammed the decision after hundreds of jobs were lost and wages cut as a result of the pandemic.
ANU branch president Simon Copland said it made a "mockery of the claim that job cuts were required to save the university from a financial crisis".
"The National Tertiary Education Union has been calling for financial transparency from ANU since management announced cuts to pay rises under the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, then cuts to 465 staff positions during the middle of COVID-19," he said.
"ANU has repeatedly claimed they are carrying out an 'extensive consultation processes' with staff and the union. But this is the first time most staff are hearing about the purchase."
City Renewal Authority chief executive Malcolm Snow told estimates last week ANU planned to include a residential component on the site.
The hearing heard it would initially be used as a "temporary urban park" but plans had stalled.
ANU did not provide further detail about site plans when asked last week.
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