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UTT’s O’Meara Campus at the O’Meara Industrial Estate in Arima.

A $57 million cash deficit for the beleaguered University of T&T (UTT) for fiscal year 2021 could result in its 800-plus workers having to take a salary cut.

But while UTT chairman Prof Clement Imbert cannot say if the university’s lingering financial woes will lead to a third wave of retrenchment at the institution, he said one option they may seriously look is slashing workers’ salaries.

“It’s a possibility. Many other companies have done that. It is an option. There is no doubt about it,” Imbert told Guardian Media as he drew reference to Caribbean Airlines pilots who recently took a 57 per cent salary cut for three months after the company weighed the option of sending them home for a period of time as the airline struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Imbert said over 75 per cent of the university’s expenditure goes towards salaries. He said by mid-November, when the board meets in an emergency meeting, they will have to make some tough decisions.

The situation materialised after a letter was sent to UTT’s acting president Prof Prakash Persad, professors and academic staff on October 21 by its financial controller Feona Lue Ping Wa, noted “the university’s budget for the year 2021 is projecting significant cash deficits of some ($57 million).”

Lue Ping Wa pointed out that UTT’s recurrent allocation of $180 million “cannot even meet payroll cost (salaries) much less non-payroll costs.”

The internal letter, which Guardian Media received a copy of, said the university had requested $270 million prior to Finance Minister Colm Imbert’s October 5 Budget presentation. However, the university was only allocated $180 million, resulting in a shortfall of $90 million. Lue Ping Wa said the university also requested $27 million for the flagship Tamana Campus in Wallerfield but was allocated $4 million.

According to the draft estimates of recurrent expenditure for 2021, UTT spent $214.4 million for fiscal year 2019-2020.

Based on their 2021 allocation of $180 million, UTT would face a $34.4 million decrease in funding when compared to 2020.

While UTT’s acting president has held discussions with the respective heads on some cost-cutting measures, Lue Ping Wa stressed it was almost impossible to cut more spending for 2021.

Contacted on the issue, Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly said as far as she knows, UTT, UWI, COSTAATT, NIHERST and MIC had all submitted budgets that were over their 2021 allocations.

“What happens at these times is that the university, of course, would look to streamline its operations, which does not necessarily mean retrenchment, but they look at all of the other things they could possibly reduce costs on and where they simply cannot reduce any more, they would reach out to the Ministry of Finance and the line ministry as well. We would have discussions on what else is critically needed to assist the institution,” Gadsby-Dolly said.

She said at this point she could not say if UTT would head into its third wave of layoffs.

“This is the time they will be looking at the leanest they could get their operations. They would have to cut costs somewhere as we all have to,” the minister said, noting she would meet with UTT’s board of governors this month.

Oilfield Workers’ Trade Union branch president Wade Cedeno said UTT had written the union’s executive seeking a meeting on the issue but could not say what the discussions will hinge on.

“I know exactly what they are coming with because I have been paying attention to what is going on in the media. A lot of the staff have been having discussions amongst themselves about what they feel would happen. The speculating…nobody knows what is going on,” Cedeno said.

Cedeno did want to make any pronouncements or assumptions before speaking with UTT.

“I could guarantee you after we meet with them (UTT) and they bring that kind of information to us (deficits), the union will have a press conference.”