Words by Tobias Langtry
Recently, the Vice-Chancellor of UWA (Professor Amit Chakma) emailed students about the structural reforms taking place at the University. Pelican Magazine has access to the ‘School of Molecular Sciences Proposal For Change Consultation Paper’ (SMS Proposal) and in this article I will provide a detailed breakdown of proposed changes within the School of Molecular Sciences.
What’s been proposed?
Two existing majors (Chemistry – Synthetic; & Chemistry – Physical and Analytical) will be merged in a single Chemistry major. The major will include core elements of synthetic, physical and analytical chemistry and the “major would still allow students to focus in either synthetic or physical and analytical chemistry.” Furthermore, “teaching activities relating to Computational Chemistry [will] be discontinued.”
The new Chemistry major “would be used in a combined degree, Bachelor of Science and Master of Teaching – Secondary, replacing the current two single majors.” This is intended to take advantage of government support for STEM teaching in secondary education, and as a response to a shortage of science teachers nation-wide.
According to the SMS Proposal, “students affected… will be able to continue their studies with no disruption to their progression or, if they prefer, supported to transfer to an alternate major with comparable learning outcomes.” However, the SMS Proposal doesn’t provide any details on what this support will actually look like.
The Proposal anticipates minimal or no impact on “the extended Geochemistry Major… Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Major or the Genetics Major or [the school’s] postgraduate by coursework programs.” However, readers should be sceptical of this claim; the SMS Proposal sets out significant job cuts in the departments responsible for those courses.
Lastly, the “sustainability of the Chemistry Extended major [will] be re-examined” in “consultation with the staff, in light of the capacity to sustain teaching into this Major after the final change plan is implemented.” The “number of units and associated unit content” the School provides will also be reviewed.
What about academic staff?
The school is set to lose eight academic positions, representing 25% (!) of all continuing academic positions in the School’s Chemistry department & Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics (BC-MG) department.* Chemistry currently has 17 continuing academic positions and will lose 6 Level C / D Teaching and Research Positions while BC-MG will lose 2 (of 15) Level C / D Teaching and Research Positions
However, “Externally-funded, fixed term and casual positions, together with positions that remain in the new structure unaltered, would not be affected by the proposed change.” This doesn’t mean remaining staff will have it easy; their workload will rise as the student-to-staff ratio increases from “approximately 16:1 to between 22:1 and 24:1.”
Staff who hold discontinued positions can submit “an expression of interest for voluntary redundancy” or “present their academic achievements to a University Panel… to be considered [for] vacant positions in the new proposed structure.” If staff take neither option they will be redeployed elsewhere or made redundant according to The University of Western Australia Academic Employees Agreement 2017.
The option to take voluntary redundancy is a welcome move, given that a similar proposal for structural reform in the School of Social Sciences didn’t provide that option. Staff in that School are worried that without the option of voluntary redundancy they’re forced to either quit (and face the financial costs associated) or continue working in a School experiencing significant changes they oppose but have little meaningful say over. However, there’s no guarantee that other staff will have the option to take voluntary redundancy, as the Academic Board recently voted against a motion guaranteeing it.
What’s the consultation process?
The consultation process will last for two weeks, from the 19th of August until the 2nd of September. Once consultation ends the SMS Proposal states the School will “review and genuinely consider [staff] feedback” before “the Vice-Chancellor [makes] a final decision on the proposed change.” The SMS Proposal therefore makes no mention of consulting students, despite the obvious and significant implications for their education.
Neither does the SMS proposal mention the university’s Academic Board (responsible for monitoring all academic activities) or Senate (UWA’s governing authority). Under UWA’s Statute, any structural proposal has to be approved by the Senate to be put into action. The Academic Board is responsible for providing advice to the Senate on structural proposals like these, though the Senate may disregard that advice.
What about research in the School?
Finally, research will be “concentrated” into four new flagship areas: Systems Biology, Synthetic Biology, Nanotechnology and Materials Science. Growth areas the School is interested in include “renewable energies; environmental chemistry; materials chemistry; synthetic cells; and systems biology, including -omics, evolutionary biology, synthetic biology, health and disease, and food production.”
Why has the School proposed these reforms?
The SMS Proposal argues these reforms are a necessary move in response to “recurring structural deficits.” This echoes similar statements made by the Vice-Chancellor about the structural reforms taking place in the School of Social Sciences.
However, Pelican Magazine is concerned to report that UWA leadership have yet to provide sufficient evidence to support this claim despite multiple requests from staff and students directly affected. It’s therefore very difficult to understand whether the proposed reforms are indeed a financial necessity. Those interested in what we do know about UWA’s finances can read further here.
According to the SMS Proposal, the School has suffered from a lack of external research funding, limiting research opportunities for Higher Degree by Research (HDR) students. While the SMS Proposal acknowledges the School’s strong research performance is a major contributor to UWA’s high international ranking, management is unimpressed with the School’s research focus in plant biology. The SMS Proposal argues a change in research focus will allow it to better meet student demand and improve the quality of research and teaching at the School.
It’s unclear, however, how removing eight academic staff contributes to this improvement. A source claimed that research areas set to be cut have struggled due to a lack of support from management, not due to academic fault: “the School has two current Forrest Scholars working in computational chemistry and these academics who are not due to be supported are amongst the highest-cited in the School. None of this is in the proposal for change.”
What about the email the Vice-Chancellor sent to students?
I am concerned to report that in his email to students, the Vice-Chancellor made no mention of proposed job cuts, despite the obvious implications for education outcomes.
In his email, the Vice-Chancellor made four guarantees:
- “There are no further proposals (beyond the proposal to merge two majors in Molecular Sciences) to discontinue existing majors in undergraduate degrees across any other School in the University, as part of our current restructuring plan.
- All current undergraduate and postgraduate coursework students will be able to continue their studies with no disruption to their progression.
- All students currently enrolled in undergraduate, honours and postgraduate coursework courses will be able to complete their current course.
- All higher degree by research students can continue their studies.”
I have two concerns here. First, if eight academic staff leave the department, that also means many HDR students in the School will lose their academic supervisor. Those HDR students will have to adopt a new academic supervisor or abandon their research.
This isn’t a simple change: a HDR student might be months into a technically complex research project that relies on expert support from an academic who is now losing their job. A change in supervisors will seriously disrupt that research and could necessitate a shift in research focus: not all staff in the School have expertise on their (now unemployed) peer’s research focus.
This isn’t easy for remaining staff either: they now have to adopt several HDR students who suddenly need a new academic supervisor. If the student-to-teacher ratio rises by 25% (as the SMS Proposal hopes) they’re also suddenly responsible for dozens of new students.
Academic staff are therefore faced with a choice: do they dedicate more time to providing a proper education to the students they’re responsible for (at the cost of their mental health, research, and time with friends and family) or do they do the bare minimum? Either way, quality of education at the School will likely fall.
This brings me to my second concern: the Vice-Chancellor’s guarantees don’t actually touch on education quality. If the SMS Proposal is implemented as is, you could complete the very same course on-paper as someone a few years before you but have a meaningfully worse education regardless.
What’s the experience been like for HDR students in the school?
Sources in the School can confirm that management has yet to provide students the SMS Proposal or a detailed summary. Furthermore, HDR students in the School report that management is “trying to be as obtuse about any information as possible” and meetings with management have been unhelpful: HDR students feel “patronised” and weren’t provided a helpful response when asking basic questions. They’ve instead been met with “empty platitudes” or “vague answers.” Worryingly, students have been invited to meetings ostensibly meant to consult them about a Proposal they don’t have access to!
Sean Li is a PhD candidate in the School set to speak at a student protest tomorrow afternoon. A public Facebook post from UWA’s Education Action Network shares his perspective. According to Sean, staff were “forbidden to attend” a meeting HDR students had with management on Thursday. In this meeting, he said the Head of School, Martha Ludwig, made no mention of job cuts and therefore students would have “no idea about it even after the meeting” unless that detail was leaked to students. He suspects this is one manifestation of a “divide and conquer” strategy management is taking to hamper student pushback.
*An organisational chart included in the Proposal omitted all casual, fixed-term and externally funded positions in those departments. The percentage calculated was made on the basis of this chart. Continuing employment refers to positions expected to last for more than 12 months.