22 March 2021

ANU upsets union with $17m purchase of key City West site

| Ian Bushnell
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ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt

ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt: University could not afford to lose the land. Photo: File.

The cash-strapped Australian National University (ANU) has confirmed it has bought a key corner site in City West from the ACT Government for $17 million.

The prime land on the corner of Marcus Clarke Street and University Avenue is currently used as a Transport Canberra bus layover but the buses will move to Turner when the new site on the corner of Watson Street and Barry Drive is built. It is expected the deal will be finalised next month.

City Renewal Authority CEO Malcolm Snow told an Assembly committee hearing recently that the ANU had agreed to proceed with development of the site within five years but in the interim it will be turned into a temporary urban park at their cost.

Mr Snow said that the ANU had hoped to build university accommodation on the site, possibly for graduates and their families, among other possible uses.

The $17m spend was negotiated before the financial impact of the pandemic and resulting fall in overseas student enrolments had been felt, provoking the ire of the National Tertiary Education Union which has been negotiating with the university over job cuts.

ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt said the sale agreement pre-dated the pandemic and ACT Government had deferred settlement for 12 months due to its impact.

City bus station

He said the university could not afford to lose the land which was irreplaceable and very important to the ANU, and it was looking at how it could be converted it into an income stream.

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The university council had made it clear that the ANU could borrow money for capital expenditure and transition costs, but not for operating expenses such as salaries.

“So 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,” Professor Schmidt told staff and students.

“Similar things might come up in the future, but you’ll not see me making decisions to sacrifice jobs for capital expenditure.”

ANU branch secretary Cathy Day said the revelation that the ANU was secretly negotiating with the ACT Government to buy this land for $17 million at the same time it was persuading staff to give up their own hard-won pay rises of $13 million demonstrates the duplicity of ANU senior management.

She said NTEU analysis showed that out of all Australian universities the ANU spent the second-lowest amount on salaries as a proportion of its operating budget.

“It’s clear that ANU senior management is addicted to big budget capital expenditure at the expense of its workers. The purchase of this land is yet another example of ANU senior management feeding their own addiction to capital expenditure, something that the ANU Vice-Chancellor admits he’s willing to borrow money for, but not for staff salaries,” Dr Day said.

“The VC says that the purchase of this bus stop is important for the future of the ANU. It is clear that the ANU does not see its own staff as being important for the future but views us merely as cogs in a machine that can just be replaced, removed and rotated as senior management sees fit. We deserve better.”

An ANU spokesperson said the university would in coming years work through the full design and concept development of the space, including consultation with appropriate stakeholders.

The spokesperson confirmed that the bus layover would remain in place for now.

“After the buses have moved and prior to the full development of the site, the University will work with City Renewal Authority to activate the space,” the spokesperson said.

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@Niven If the money has been placed in a special purpose trust, it’s a separate entity that might only be allowed to spend money on improvements to the ANU. You see the same principle in school building funds and also organisations like the Churchill Trust — the money can only be used for the stated purpose. The trustees are not free to change the purpose of the trust.

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