Massey scientists are calling for an independent audit of numbers on which the university is basing a major shake-up that could see more than 100 roles axed.
They’re now pitching their own plan with the hope of saving jobs, although the cash-strapped university says the “financial drivers” cited in its proposed science restructure, aimed at saving some $12 million, aren’t likely to change.
The cuts - which would slash staff numbers in the schools of Natural Sciences and Food and Advanced Technology by around 60 per cent – were floated earlier this month as Massey tries to claw back a $50m deficit.
In a separate restructure, Massey has signalled cuts across humanities and social sciences that could see another 40 fulltime roles go.
The Tertiary Education Union and faculty members are vehemently challenging the science proposals – as are student groups that cried for Vice-Chancellor Jan Thomas’ resignation in a tense confrontation last week.
At the core of contention are financial workings which Professor Dianne Brunton, an ecology at Massey’s Albany campus, believes should be reviewed by an independent financial consultant.
She claimed the method used in the proposal to allocate expenses and income to different disciplines was “biased” against Albany.
“Within the Schools of Natural Sciences, for example, the total expenses are simply allocated based on the number of academic staff in each academic management group by campus - not the actual expenses,” she said.
“We know that disciplines like chemistry have vastly different costs to ecology and zoology.”
Massey’s proposal stated a figure of $159,000 for ecology’s “teaching consumables”, based on its staff number allocation, but Brunton contended the actual amount was less than $15,000.
“We asked for the actual data across all disciplines and were told it doesn’t exist,” she said.
“We ask, what financially responsible multi-million-dollar entity does not have accurate information about where its income comes from and what it spends for each of the components of its operation and then proposes staffing cuts based on this misrepresentative method?”
Brunton also criticised the way Massey’s workings separated student numbers by campus – something she said didn’t factor in the “blended” way in which students from both Palmerston North and Albany campuses were taught together, and which presented a bias against Albany.
She cited one course, of which 70 per cent was taught by Albany-based staff, but whose $600,000 of income was instead allocated to the Palmerston North campus.
Further, she and colleagues had serious concerns with the way in which Massey had allocated space charges within its recently-completed Innovation Complex, arguing these figures didn’t reflect the space actually being occupied.
“The methods used disadvantages groups that have low-cost course delivery, high research income and efficient space use.”
In response, faculty members were pitching an alternative plan that would bring all sciences taught at Albany under one roof in the Innovation Complex, which already housed purpose-built laboratories.
Brunton said the scientists’ own plan would help bring down costs, while sharing facilities among the sciences and growing student numbers.
Her colleagues wanted a “collaborative rather than combative” approach, she said, and had been assured their feedback would be considered.
“A lot of smart people are focused on solutions - the threat of losing your career, your students and your livelihood has this effect,” she said.
“We have had incredible support from colleagues in New Zealand and all around the world and from our students.
“PhD students are especially impacted, if their supervisors and external funding go then they have nothing, no project and no funds. For international students, this is devastating.”
Massey University Students’ Association Federation general president Andrew Steele said communications with students had been “ridiculously poor”.
Some had been left in tears over uncertainty about their studies next year, he said, including one student who’d just bought a house in Auckland only to learn that half their course would now be based in Palmerston North.
“We’ve definitely been talking to a brick wall, but what has been really good to see is the solidarity of the students, and the push-back.”
TEU organiser Ben Schmidt said the union also continued to “unequivocally oppose” the proposed sciences cuts.
“This is short-sighted, the numbers don’t add up, this proposal cannot go ahead and we will be continuing to fight back strongly against it.”
College of Sciences pro-vice chancellor Professor Ray Geor said no decisions would be made until the proposal had been “carefully and thoroughly considered” by the college, its staff and students and the wider university community.
“During the close inspection focus of the Proposal for Change processes, we expect there will be refinements of information, as organisational finances are never static.”
Geor said he was aware some staff had advised they’d like to provide alternative solutions and information to that proposed, and he was open to considering it as part of feedback.
“However, we are confident that the overriding financial drivers creating the need for a Proposal for Change are unlikely to change substantively through the consultation process.”
Geor said the need to reduce costs and generate income to ensure financial sustainability was “urgent” for this year and remained so for the next three years.
Jamie Morton is a specialist in science and environmental reporting. He joined the Herald in 2011 and writes about everything from conservation and climate change to natural hazards and new technology.