Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Australia's premier university - down $100 million

“We are hoping prices move back up.”

The Australian National University has lost $100 million from its investment portfolio as a result of the worldwide share market crash.

The ANU’s Vice Chancellor Professor Ian Chubb confirmed the figure to the Canberra Times yesterday after hinting at it during a vote of thanks to the Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens at a guest lecture on Tuesday.

In thanking the Governor, Professor Chub - a neuroscientist by training – said he was merely “an amateur and an observer” when it came to finance.

He said he was “advised by his Chief Finance Officer on a regular basis these days with the following expression: don’t panic”...

The Vice Chancellor added: “And then he tells me the amount by which our shares and investments have dropped from one day to another”.

“I guess we’re $50 million plus off our book value at the moment, but I think it’s probably somewhere close to $100 million.

Professor Chubb said yesterday after checking that the correct figure was close to $100 million, meaning that the University had lost 8 per cent of its $1.4 billion investment portfolio.

The share market slide began in August 2007. This suggests that that the ANU’s investment portfolio is losing between $2 million and $3 million a week.

Professor Chubb said that none of the money was needed urgently. Some had been put away to meet superannuation obligations that would not fall due for decades. Other money had been put away for capital works which were pretty much on hold while the University waited to see what use could be made of the Higher Education Endowment Fund announced in the last Commonwealth budget.

Because the ANU hadn’t yet sold the shares that had fallen in price the losses had not yet been realised. If share markets started recovering the losses would diminish.

“We are hoping prices move back up,” the Vice Chancellor said.

The ANU’s investment portfolio includes shares and bonds and is not augmented with borrowings or derivatives.

Its loss of about 8 per cent is not as severe as that of the wider Australian share market whose ASX 200 index has fallen 12 per cent since August.

The investments are supervised by a university committee that meets every three months.

Professor Chubb told a conference of college and university housing officers yesterday that he was unable to rely on Canberra’s housing market to provide student accommodation and that this semester he turned away 700 students who wanted on-campus accommodation.

An extra 535 beds would become available in the area between the campus and the city in February 2009 and beyond that he wanted an extra 1,800 beds.

The ANU was borrowing or partnering with private firms to build the accommodation meaning that students were being charged more for accommodation than was “often desirable”.

But the alternative was not to build, which was not an option for a university like the ANU, which attracted students from outside the ACT.

The Vice Chancellor told the conference that the student income support system has not been properly reviewed since 1992 and was in urgent need for reform.

Forty per cent of full-time undergraduates said that paid work adversely affected their studies and one in four were taking out private loans to help meet living costs.

One in eight said they regularly went without food or other necessities because they couldn't afford them.

“Let me remind you that these are the people upon whose shoulders we place the future of this country – they are the ones we will come to depend on for our economic, social and cultural wealth. Is it anything but shameful?” Professor Chubb asked the conference.