Four main points emerge from the following analysis of UNSW’s financial performance in 2020.

* There was a slight revenue loss from cash flows from operating activities

* UNSW appears to be engaged in a significant infrastructure development programme with work in progress valued at $369m. There are significant financing costs associated with this

* Staffing disclosures do not include casuals in the annual report data, which may be in breach of government regulation

* in 2020 UNSW’s vice-chancellor was one of the highest-paid in Australia.

Job losses

Last year UNSW forecast job losses among permanent staff with considerable precision, in a redundancy programme to help address its revenue shortfall. The equivalent of 493 full-time positions was announced (CMM July 16 2020).

UNSW must report under the  Annual Reports (Statutory Bodies) Regulation 2015 (the Regulation), which requires universities to report on the “number of employees, by category, with comparison to each of not less than three years before the reporting year,” which raises two issues.

*  UNSW leaves out casuals from its total staff.

*  it uses data submitted on March 31 2020, nine months before the end of the calendar year.

Table 1. UNSW university charities commission report 2019-year end

Full-time employees 6113
Part-time employees 1261
Casual Employees actual 1294


Headcount 20323

Full-time equivalent staff (FTE): 6799

Table 2. UNSW university charities commission report 2020-year end

Full-time employees 4418
Part-time employees 935
Casual Employees actual 9088
Headcount 14441

Full-time equivalent staff: 14441

Comparing UNSW employment figures submitted to the Charities Commission for 2019 and 2020 ( headcount 20 323 and 14 441), demonstrates a loss of employment based on headcount of 5,882 positions.

Therefore, the number of full-time equivalent staff reported to the Charities Commission  at the end of 2020 of 14441 is not credible and an error.   The UNSW 2020 annual report provides a full-time equivalent staffing number which is almost half of that reported in the Charities Commission report, of 7 320 (Annual Report page 11).


The statement of cash flows shows a reduction of $45m in terms of operating activities. Also, an item called “fees,” which seems to be international student fees, recorded a reduction of $175m, but this is only on a budgeted figure in a budgeted report which is unusual as not required by legislation. Questions, therefore, need to be asked about how the $175 million fee reduction was calculated.

The actual numbers for 2020 are as follows.

International student fees ($m)

2020                2019                $ change       % change
671,360           767,565           -96,205            -12.5%

Concerning land, student accommodation and buildings, it was noted in the historical 2011 annual report that there was no cost associated with the valuation of $1.0276 billion, as most of this would have been gifted or capital grants from governments.

To put this in context, in 2011 UNSW embarked on several public-private partnerships for student accommodation. On December 31 2020, campus land was valued at about $300 m, and campus buildings were at about S1.6bn; therefore, in total, for the main campus, the valuation was $1.9bn. The PPPs are treated as service concession assets rather than UNSW assets on the books even though they will be handed back to the university at the end of the contract.

UNSW announced in January 2021 that VC Ian Jacobs would retire at the end of the year, citing family reasons. Attila Brungs VC will move from UTS to replace him. As this movement did not happen in 2020, we can disclose that Vice Chancellor Jacobs remuneration is going from $1.5m to $1.4m. The 2020 annual report also reveals that six key management personnel received remuneration over $500k.

A few other numbers show the changes from 2020 compared to 2019. Both the dollar amounts, and the percentages changed.

Revenue and Income from Continuing Operations down

2,162,167 2,335,490 -173,323 -7.4%

Investment income down

45,443 87,453 -42,010 -48.0%

Consultants and contracts expenses down

       88,175      108,492 -20,317 -18.7%

Employee related expenses up and this would be explained by redundancy payments during 2020

1,283,224 1,266,157 17,067 1.3%

The observed change in the accrual operating results shows a movement from profit to a loss of $43m and movement of only $70m.

-43,075 27,599 -70,674 -256.1%

However, when we explore Earnings before Taxation, Depreciation and Amortisation (EBTDA) there was only a movement of $60 million. This is in terms of revenue of over $2.2 billion!

Earnings before  Taxation, Depreciation and Amortisation

79,396 138,645 -59,249 -42.7%

Both short-term and long-term borrowings increased with nearly $0.5 billion in borrowings at the end of 2020.

Long term borrowings

415,355 377,462 37,893 10.0%

On December 31 2020, the university held $654m in investments, which is measured at fair value. The university’s investments are managed by external fund managers and a contracted services organisation.

As can be seen from the above, UNSW has plenty of cash or cash equivalents, and the 2020 operating income and operating results moved down slightly were affected by depreciation and financing charges.

What’s needed now

The NSW Auditor General’s 2020 report on NSW public  universities noted UNSW’s student population as 63,232 total students, with 22,621 students commencing in 2020. Of the total,  40,124 were local students, 23,108 were international students, and 4,288 were higher degree research candidates. Note, that China was the main source of international students at the end of 2020  (NSW AG p.23).

In a recent paper by Guthrie et al. (2021), we crunched the 2019 financial data for all public universities and provided a scenario concerning international onshore students.* Our mid-range scenario is a decline of onshore international students of 40 per cent  in 2022 following a slower vaccine uptake, with border closures still mainly in effect throughout the year.

In this scenario, we expect a decrease of Chinese international enrolments of up to 60 per cent by 2030 as China builds its university sector up to world-class and international students explore other overseas markets.

In this scenario overseas student fees in 2025 will be 56 per cent of 2019 values, and in 2030 52 per cent of 2019 values.

If this was to occur, a fix for the present broken model is more urgent, and new revenue streams should be examined.

In the short term, universities can take advantage of the 30,000 new undergraduate placements to supplement revenue.  The Deloitte Access Economics (2019) cost-estimate study finds that the variable costs of teaching (e.g., academic, and administrative staff salaries) amount to 60 per cent of the total cost.

However, no new buildings, classrooms, or other fixed costs are needed in the short term because international onshore students and universities will receive $15,600 per place but pay only $12,000 in marginal costs, which gives a $3,600 excess contribution to a new local undergraduate student.

The loss of international onshore fee-paying students will force UNSW to rethink their broken financial services and infrastructure building models bases on high paying international student fees.

Needed: a permanent audit of all NSW public universities

A NSW parliamentary inquiry into the states public universities recommends expanding the state Auditor-General’s oversight of them. The state government supports in-principal two recommendations (three and 22).

“That the NSW Government expand the responsibilities of the NSW Auditor-General to grant the NSW Auditor-General a broader brief and stronger  investigative capacity to ensure university financial and staffing management is transparent, effective and acting in the public interest, especially regarding reliance on international student income and the salaries paid to Vice-Chancellors and senior university administrators”


“That the NSW Government extend the powers of the New South Wales Auditor-General to audit the state’s international education sector and make recommendations to universities as part of their annual audit of university finances, especially concerning risk management, income diversification, economic resilience, and reliance on international student income.”

There should be a performance audit and it should be urgently undertaken as we know that tens of thousands of university employees have lost their work, and now the remaining workforce is losing significant conditions and student experiences has been eroded.

And a new direction for public universities

The business accrual financial statements used by public universities have little helpful information content. How we account for students, employees, and public value is critical and is missing.

Citizens and governments increasingly appreciate the link between what gets measured, disclosed, and reported. For example, in 2019, the New Zealand Government introduced its first-ever wellbeing budget that aligns policy initiatives with four pillars of capital: natural (environmental), human, social, and financial to account for these capital movements in a year report on them.

Refocusing the goals of public universities will require their executives to recognise the need to shift their priorities from the non-core activities of investing in property and financial speculation to universities’ core activities of teaching, research and cultural development (which includes contributing to Australia’s social, economic and environmental wellbeing).

In the process, the assessment of student experiences and the outcomes from academic research and teaching should incorporate both qualitative and quantitative criteria. This should be done to consider the human, environmental and social impacts of decision-making when designing a new budgeting and accountability system for public sector universities in Australia.

Distinguished Professor James Guthrie AM, Macquarie U Business School



UNSW annual report 2020

UNSW annual report 2011 v2

AUDITOR GENERAL’S REPORT FINANCIAL AUDITS Volume Two 2010 focusing on universities

* Guthrie, J., M. Linnenleucke, A. Martin-Sardesai, Y. Shen & T. Smith (2021) “Our universities’ Vice Chancellors must rethink their broken business model or risk failure”, Accounting and Finance, ahead-of-print.

The Government response to the report entitled Future Development of the NSW tertiary education sector by Portfolio Committee No. 3 – Education for tabling in the Legislative Council. July 2021.


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