Massey University scientists are scrambling to save their jobs amid a restructure that could see more than 100 roles axed and has left many students in “panic mode”.
They’re also questioning why the university’s senior leadership has put forward the proposal - cutting staff numbers in the schools of Natural Sciences and Food and Advanced Technology by around 60 per cent - just months after Massey opened a state-of-the-art Innovation Complex at its Albany campus.
Within the complex, built as part of a $120 million redevelopment, are purpose-built laboratories used by researchers whose roles are threatened by the cuts - and there are concerns that endangered species and marine life samples housed there could be lost with them.
More than three years after Massey first flagged a major shake-up in its College of Sciences, staff this week received a new proposal due to be consulted on and decided upon by the end of next month.
The Tertiary Education Union (TEU), which is already vowing to fight the move, said it would also spell the end of Massey teaching engineering, plant science and other areas, while closing down the Massey Genome Service and Manawatū Microscopy and Imaging Centre.
Albany-based Massey ecologist, Professor Dianne Brunton, said the floated cuts were “much more brutal” than those discussed back in 2020 - and this time, there didn’t appear to be any alternative plans on the table.
“We all got individual letters this time that said, if the proposal goes ahead as detailed, then our positions are disestablished - it’s already at that level,” Brunton said.
“There will be significant losses - and all of the experimental sciences, engineering, natural sciences... will be gone from the Albany campus completely.”
The proposal was sent out on the day enrolments opened for next year - and, if implemented, would be completed by the start of that semester, she said.
The news had also left many current students, especially post-graduate researchers, in “panic mode” about their own studies.
Brunton herself had some working with her on a Marsden Fund-supported programme.
“It’s shattering for them and they all don’t know what to do.”
While it had been indicated there would be alternative arrangements offered for affected students, Brunton said many of their study areas were highly specific.
The complex itself was also specialised: one of its facilities held marine mammal tissue samples on behalf of tangata whenua and the Department of Conservation, with permits for them to be held only at that site.
Massey University ecologist Professor Dianne Brunton.
“In the animal rooms, there’s a sound-proof chamber so sensitive that you can measure the vibrations of a spider walking up its web - that’s not just something you can pass on to somebody else to do.”
Postgraduate student and lab demonstrator James Roberts said his lab housed 30 katipō spiders - considered more threatened than the North Island brown kiwi - that might have to be euthanised if the proposal went through.
“They haven’t told us anything about how the proposal will affect us, which isn’t a nice place to be in,” Roberts said.
“This is going to impact the results from my study, which will then impact the rest of my career.”
Brunton said there were now plans to present Massey with an alternative proposal and budget, that would see science occupy less of the complex and students able to continue their studies.
“But we need more time. We’re in the middle of the last few weeks of teaching where there’s marking, and we’ve been given this proposal like a bombshell.”
TEU organiser Ben Schmidt said the union would also be challenging the move, which he argued would only take the university and its science backward.
“Our members are devastated by this proposal, but they’re also furious about it, and will be strongly fighting back against it,” he said.
“We’re two weeks out from the general election, the Government has injected more cash into the tertiary sector and we have an upcoming review of tertiary funding - so now is absolutely not the time to be making these short-sighted and devastating decisions.”
The Herald has approached Massey with specific questions about how programmes affected by the proposal had factored into the business case for the complex, and what would happen once they were disestablished.
In a media statement this week, the college’s pro vice-chancellor, Professor Ray Geor, said Massey had been signalling “difficult financial conditions”, along with the need to reduce costs and generate income to ensure its financial sustainability.
The university was reportedly running an operating deficit that had stretched to $33m for the year to date.
Work on the academic profile of the college began before the pandemic, Geor said, and the latest proposal considered further changes to qualifications and specialisations, consolidation of some subjects to Massey’s Manawatū campus, and the academic and technical staffing required to support core activities in teaching, learning and research.
The university was continuing to engage with staff, he said, and enrolled students would be able to provide feedback.
“No decisions will be made until the proposal has been carefully and thoroughly considered by the college, its staff and students, and the wider university community,” Geor said.
While a Government cash boost has eased some of the strain on universities, it hasn’t been enough to prevent a round of recent redundancies, including more than 100 at Otago in July and about 140 at Victoria University.
Ahead of this month’s election, Labour announced a review into the higher education funding system, with a decision to be taken by the end of 2023, while National has vowed to accelerate the return of international students and implement a new funding model.
New Zealand Association of Scientists co-president Professor Troy Baisden.
New Zealand Association of Scientists co-president Professor Troy Baisden said growth in research funding to universities was rapid until about five years ago - but when that levelled off and the pandemic meant overseas students couldn’t come here, institutions were left competing against each other.
“Our research institutions like to show off shiny new facilities but didn’t open up their finances and the discussion of what they deliver for the nation, nor does it appear they manage strategic risks,” Baisden said.
Former Massey scientist Dr Austen Ganley, now a genetics lecturer at the University of Auckland, said those facing the latest cuts included some of New Zealand’s top-performing scientists.
“I think the science sector in general needs to be looked at, and we need to decide as a country what we really want from it,” Ganley said.
“A lot of the solutions to major modern problems come from scientific innovation, and if we don’t have a strong science system, we’re going to get left behind.”
Jamie Morton is a specialist in science and environmental reporting. He joined the Herald reporting team in 2011 and has spent the last decade writing about everything from conservation and cosmology to climate change and Covid-19.
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