Words by Tobias Langtry
Staff at SymbioticA have recently been warned that the School of Human Sciences at the University of Western Australia plans to cut all funding and close the SymbioticA centre (a multidisciplinary Centre of Excellence dedicated to research melding science and art). They have won a host of awards, including the WA Premier’s Prize for Excellence in Science Communication and the Golden Nica for Hybrid Arts in the Prix Ars Electronica.
Students told me they felt that UWA Vice-Chancellor Amit Chakma was breaking a promise made in an email, in August last year, that “all current undergraduate and postgraduate coursework students will be able to continue their studies with no disruption to their progression.” Amit Chakma also promised that “all higher degree by research students can continue their studies.” It was obvious to those affected that the loss of SymbioticA would have a significantly negative impact on their education. The promise was made as UWA management pushed through job cuts and forcefully disbanded the Anthropology and Sociology Discipline despite fierce opposition from the university community.
Why management wants to close SymbioticA
So, why does management want to close SymbioticA? In a Proposal For Change given to staff, management claimed that SymbioticA “does not support the core areas or strategic priorities of the School“. In particular, the proposal falsely claimed that SymbioticA enrols no postgraduate students through the School of Human Sciences. In fact, there are four Masters students and six PhD students. Such an obvious error shocked those I talked to at SymbioticA who were appalled that management could “not even acknowledge their own students.”
Financial sustainability was a major concern for management, but the staff at SymbioticA noted that they were provided with only limited funds from the university, with just two full-time staff and one part-time academic coordinator. They otherwise relied on external funding and were frequently awarded grants from prestigious organisations like The Australian Council For The Arts.
There is also a strong reason to suspect that closing SymbioticA would only hurt UWA’s financials. Some current students have suggested they would reconsider studying at UWA, and the move could also discourage future students by hurting the university’s reputation. There has been a flood of outcry in response to SymbioticA’s proposed closure, with over two hundred letters in support of SymbioticA being sent. An online petition opposing SymbioticA’s closure has already reached twelve thousand signatures.
What do the SymbioticA students and staff have to say?
David, a PhD student, explained to me that he moved from Germany to Perth and even rejected a PhD offer from UNSW because SymbioticA was so well regarded. He praised SymbioticA staff for helping him find work in his first semester and because few other institutions would facilitate his research interests as SymbioticA does. However, he told me UWA management’s decision to cut support for SymbioticA is “really embarrassing for a university that says to seek wisdom.”
Valerie, a Masters student from Austria, told me that she chose UWA over cheaper options in Europe because she valued working with SymbioticA so much. This wasn’t an easy choice as she had to move away from friends and family to a new country and her partner had to relocate and quit their job as well. When I spoke to her, UWA had yet to officially contact her about the proposed shutdown, and this had left her feeling “invisible”. Valerie was really shocked that UWA would treat a student this way and said: “they took my money, but they don’t see me as a living person.”
On Friday UWA finally reached out to Valerie and the other Masters students to invite them to a meeting with the Head of Human Sciences and Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor. She said this invitation was “of very short notice.” Indeed, the consultation process was originally planned to end on the 25th of October, a full week before the hastily planned meeting.
Matt, a SymbioticA alumni, questioned management’s insistence that closing SymbioticA is a financially wise decision. Despite SymbioticA relying on limited personnel and funding, Matt told me that SymbioticA was one of the “most well-known centres for biological arts and experimental research in the world, with a reach and reputation” comparable to institutions with millions of dollars in funding like the MIT Media Lab. In his opinion, SymbioticA’s funding should actually be increased, and greater support for the centre would attract more students and revenue for the university. In his mind, the forced closure of SymbioticA would hurt the university’s bottom line by damaging its reputation and scaring students away from a university “in chaos” that “clearly did not value research or their students.”
The bottom line
There are a few common themes in every conversation I’ve had with the students and staff most affected by SymbioticA’s closure. Every one of them felt that SymbioticA was something special and the major reason why they were studying or working at UWA. They stressed how well-regarded SymbioticA was in the industry, and it was clear that UWA’s reputation benefitted from the award-winning Centre of Excellence. Those I talked to were appalled by the proposal to force SymbioticA’s closure and at how management had approached the process. It was best put by Tylie, a PhD student, who was shocked “that the university is willing to close down an internationally renowned multidisciplinary centre of excellence without considering the impact this will have on the students that are enrolled at the centre, the reputation of the university or the importance of the work that SymbioticA does.”