Oys­ters and wagyu on uni bosses’ menu

Elite staff get to en­joy ex­clu­sive club amid cut­backs. Kelly Den­nett and Har­ri­son Chris­tian re­port.

Sunday Star-Times - - FRONT PAGE -

As front­line aca­demic staff and li­brar­i­ans face job cuts, the Univer­sity of Auck­land has de­fended spend­ing thou­sands on ex­clu­sive North­ern Club mem­ber­ships for its top ex­ec­u­tives.

Since 2014 the univer­sity has spent more than $33,000 to give eight se­nior staff mem­bers en­try to the cen­tral Auck­land club, once no­to­ri­ous for ex­clud­ing women and Ma¯ori.

Vice-Chan­cel­lor Pro­fes­sor Stu­art McCutcheon said he used the club, ad­ja­cent to the univer­sity cam­pus, as a func­tion cen­tre to host in­ter­na­tional guests and man­age im­por­tant re­la­tion­ships. ‘‘The peo­ple who have the mem­ber­ships are peo­ple who are heads of the fac­ul­ties, or deputy vicechan­cel­lors, and they are en­gaged in fundrais­ing ac­tiv­ity and managing re­la­tion­ships,’’ he said.

But the spend­ing comes as stu­dent en­rol­ments drop at a num­ber of ter­tiary in­sti­tu­tions, es­pe­cially in the big cities where liv­ing costs are high­est.

The big­gest polytech, Unitec, this week re­ported a $31 mil­lion deficit af­ter a 7 per cent drop in stu­dent num­bers. And the big­gest univer­sity, Auck­land, has blamed falling en­rol­ments for pro­posed lay-offs in the ed­u­ca­tion, so­cial work, and arts fac­ul­ties.

The univer­sity is con­sult­ing staff around job cuts. More than 40 jobs are on the line.

Jessica Palairet, a fifth-year law and arts stu­dent and vice-pres­i­dent of the stu­dents’ as­so­ci­a­tion, said the spend­ing was ‘‘in­de­fen­si­ble’’.

‘‘It’s ab­so­lutely not ap­pro­pri­ate, in my view, at a time where the univer­sity is quot­ing tight fi­nan­cial con­straints as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for cut­ting en­tire lan­guage pro­grammes, cut­ting li­braries, se­ri­ously re­duc­ing the size of our spe­cial­ist li­brar­ian staff and other staff.

‘‘It’s kind of shock­ing that you have to, in or­der to keep up your in­ter­na­tional busi­ness re­la­tions, spend al­most $40,000 so that the vice-chan­cel­lor can go across the road to have a meet­ing rather than have it in his of­fice. That makes no sense to me at all.’’

In the mem­bers’ din­ing room at the North­ern Club, McCutcheon and his fel­low ex­ec­u­tives can en­joy oys­ters or wagyu carpac­cio for en­trees, and 12-hour pork shoul­der or seared eye fil­let for their mains.

But McCutcheon in­sisted the club mem­ber­ships were jus­ti­fi­able.

‘‘If you want to put it in con­text . . . in those last four years, we would have raised $200 mil­lion in phil­an­thropic fund­ing for the univer­sity. None of that fund­ing ben­e­fits the peo­ple who are on the list of mem­ber­ships.

‘‘If it’s six or seven thou­sand a year, last year we raised $64m in donor fund­ing. All of that fund­ing goes to sup­port stu­dent schol­ar­ships for re­search ac­tiv­i­ties, to sup­port new staff, or peo­ple who are be­ing hired into the univer­sity.’’

He re­jected any sug­ges­tion the mem­ber­ships could be seen as ex­trav­a­gant. ‘‘I think any sug­ges­tion of that na­ture would be a non­sense. I’m afraid there’s no scan­dal.’’

North­ern Club mem­ber­ships were pur­chased on a yearly ba­sis for McCutcheon as well as the deputy vice-chan­cel­lor of strate­gic en­gage­ment, the deans of fac­ulty sci­ence, law, engi­neer­ing and med­i­cal health sciences; and the di­rec­tors of ed­u­ca­tion ini­tia­tives, and alumni re­la­tions and de­vel­op­ment.

The club’s web­site says mem­ber­ship opens doors to ‘‘in­ter­est­ing events and ex­clu­sive op­por­tu­ni­ties’’, in­clud­ing ‘‘lux­ury Cham­pagne tast­ings’’ and ‘‘master cheese classes’’.

ABI­GAIL DOUGHERTY / STUFF

Auck­land Univer­sity law stu­dent Jessica Palairet out­side the North­ern Club. She says the univer­sity’s spend­ing there is ‘‘in­de­fen­si­ble’’.

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