Massey University researchers are vowing to fight a radical shake-up being described as potentially the biggest blow to Kiwi science in a generation.

More shocked staff have told the Herald of their anguish at changes that could see 50 of their Auckland colleagues lose their jobs, and force hundreds of students to move out of the city.

Massey wants to stop offering science degrees at its Albany campus from the end of this year as part of a drive to cut spending by $18m a year, and the roll-out of its new centralised and online-focused Digital Plus strategy.

It also proposes to stop offering degrees in computer science and postgraduate engineering at Palmerston North - forcing a smaller number of students to either move to Auckland or change universities.

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Professor Dianne Brunton, who is head of Albany's School of Natural and Computational Sciences, said affected staff and students were now rallying together and would be seeking guidance from an employment lawyer.

She was outraged the university's senior leadership team chose to send out a discussion document outlining the proposals yesterday – on the same day a fresh Bachelor of Science programme began at Albany.

One colleague "fell apart" and was too distressed to face their students for that afternoon's lecture.

"I've also had two computer science staff members in here who were in floods of tears, because they don't want to see their colleagues go, and see what we've built here destroyed," she said.

"This is not how a university behaves – it might be legal, but it's not ethical."

The Tertiary Education Union (TEU) has advised the university it would be holding a stop-work meeting to discuss the proposals.

"We will be working with our members to ensure that consultation is fair, transparent and robust – and that their voices are heard," Massey TEU organiser Heather Warren said.

Students demand answers

The discussion document said the university's costs have risen more than its revenue and it needed to cut spending by $18.1m a year, including $5.1m in the College of Sciences.

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It proposed slashing staff costs in the College of Sciences by $11.7m, or 15 per cent.

But Brunton said that, by any measure, sciences at Albany were significantly more profitable than at Palmerston North, with more growth forecast.

Of students taking bachelors of sciences at Massey, 625 were based at Albany, compared with 928 in Palmerston North.

On top of that, there were around 60 students each undertaking natural science PhDs and masters degrees at Albany.

Yet, with the cuts being floated, she expected Auckland student numbers would now "tank" - and worried for those enrolled students whose work was tied to study sites around Auckland and Northland.

Equipment was carefully not duplicated across Palmerston North and Albany, unless justified by demand.

Brunton couldn't recall any other incidence where any current programme wasn't "grandfathered" before being ended.

Halting one while students were still enrolled would hit them financially, she said.

Albany students were mostly living at home, she said, and might not be able to afford boarding at Palmerston North.

Brunton also had deep reservations about the strategy itself, arguing its online focus wasn't compatible with the often lab-based teaching of science.

About 50 PhD students met at the campus today and requested a meeting with pro-vice chancellor of Massey's College of Sciences, Professor Ray Geor.

Albany Students Association president Dallin Niuelua asked why many students were only hearing of the plans now.

"The working group behind this has been around for years, and throughout this process there has been zero student consultation. That is of great concern to us."

One Auckland student, who asked not to be named, said she couldn't make sense of the proposals.

"At the end of last year, I was changing my degree major, and there were new choices in bio-science, but now it's potentially not going to be offered in Albany anymore?" she said, adding she didn't want to move to another part of the country.

An Albany-based international student, halfway through a BSc, said she'd already become used to living in Auckland, and would find it hard to move.

"It is very hard from me to transfer credits to another school or study in a small city. It is going to affect my study quality."

"This is not how a university behaves - it might be legal, but it's not ethical," Massey University's Professor Dianne Brunton said. Photo / File

Another said they'd learned about the shake-up through media articles before receiving an email.

"It's pretty shocking. I was disappointed and confused. It feels like the university isn't taking us international students seriously."

Blow for NZ science

Professor Troy Basiden, president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, said the cuts could prove "very disruptive" not just to science in the country but other disciplines.

"There's just not a lot of spare capacity. So losing only a few people, never mind a large group of them, has pretty dire consequences."

Science commentator Professor Shaun Hendy – a Massey physics graduate himself – said the situation was shaping up to be the "biggest blow to the New Zealand science community in a generation".

"As a science community, we are spread very thin in New Zealand – and to take a hit of this size means we'd lose some key capability."

Hendy singled out Massey's Professor Mick Roberts, who he described as the country's leading infectious disease modeller.

"There are a lot of other scientists like that at Massey, who are kind of critical infrastructure to New Zealand."

They included Brunton herself, a renowned behavioural ecologist; microbiologist Dr Heather Hendrickson, one of the country's most visible scientists; ornithologist Dr Daniel Thomas, who has helped discover ancient bird species; and Dr Luis Ortiz Catedral, who works with island vertebrates around the world.

Marine scientists whose programmes would effectively be axed included David Aguirre, only just made an associate professor, and awarded a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship for investigating how corals will respond to climate change.

Another Rutherford fellow, Associate Professor Karen Stockin, renowned for her work on marine mammals, recently received a prestigious animal welfare fellowship, while marine ecologist Dr Libby Liggins was last year awarded two top medals for data stewardship and early career research.

They told the Herald their important Auckland-focused research alongside hapu - and various agencies on projects like the sprawling SeaChange plan for Hauraki Gulf - was now at stake.

"All of the work we're doing in this community is going to suffer with this proposal, and that's not only unfair to us, it's unfair to the people we work with," Aguirre said.

He also worried for his students.

"We have undergraduate students who have chosen Massey for bachelors degrees which would be discontinued next year; that has massive implications for duty of care."

Stockin said she was busy teaching her first week or first semester, while writing policy documents at night.

"It's a trying time, but we really just want to do our jobs, because these things are really important," she said.

"We want to serve our students, we want to serve the community, and we want to hit that range of targets that we need to be hitting. And this is just a massive disruption."

She was eager to see a business plan for the new strategy that proved it could work.

"With something as radical as Digital Plus, you'd assume it would have gone through the rigours of the Academic Board – I don't see any evidence of that."

The researchers questioned where their students would go – and whether the University of Auckland or AUT would be able to accommodate them.

"It's not easy to get into a PhD programme," Liggins said.

"Not finishing one and having to move to another isn't just personally traumatising, it's potentially professionally ruining."

Yesterday, a Massey spokesperson told the Herald that any changes affecting staff would go through a proper proposal for change consultation process, and any job impacts would not be known until that process was complete.

"All students would be supported to complete their qualification and if any changes occur, they would start at beginning of next year at the earliest."

They said Massey had developed the new management strategy - an anchor campus for each subject paired with a "world-class digital online offering" - to future-proof the university in what was a "challenging environment".

"Massey University is committed to working and engaging with staff and students to hear their feedback on the discussion document," they said.

"While this process is underway, and no final decisions about any programmes have yet been made, we cannot make any further comment about potential outcomes."

The Herald asked Education Minister Chris Hipkins and Science and Research, Science and Innovation Megan Woods if they had any concerns around the proposals.

Acting Education Minister Tracey Martin responded in a statement: "We know that Massey is committed to ensuring all students and staff are consulted and supported through the transition once final decisions are made."

The proposals are open for submissions until March 16.

What's proposed

• Under the online-focused Digital Plus strategy, face-to-face teaching would only happen at "anchor" campuses for those subjects.

• Science degrees would no longer be offered at Albany, but at Palmerston North majoring in chemistry, earth science, ecology, environmental science, maths, microbiology, molecular genetics and biochemistry, statistics and zoology. Majors in physics, plant science and marine biology would be abandoned completely.

• Similarly, enrolments would cease at Palmerston North from the end of this year in computer and information sciences at all levels, and in postgraduate engineering.