Massey leaders have faced a grilling by MPs over a controversial shake-up that could see dozens of science jobs go from the university's Albany campus.

Parliament's Education and Workforce select committee has been hearing a 13,000-signature petition to launch an inquiry into how science education at the campus is provided.

It also asked the Government to quash a discussion document that set up an angry confrontation between Albany scientists and Massey's senior leadership team.

In February, on the first day of semester, Massey academics were told the university proposed to stop offering a science degree from its Albany campus, in a restructure that could see 50 science jobs lost from Auckland and hundreds of students forced to relocate.

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It was a bombshell that came amid a major restructure and the roll-out of an online-focused strategy called Digital Plus that would see many subjects taught face-to-face only at designated "anchor" campuses.

A discussion document said the university's costs had risen more than its revenue and it needed to cut spending by $18.1m a year – and proposed slashing staff costs in the College of Sciences by $11.7m, or 15 per cent.

The petition's submitter, renowned Massey mathematician Distinguished Professor Gaven Martin, last month told the select committee that the proposals misrepresented financial and market information, and were not consulted on with Auckland stakeholders "whatsoever".

Martin said the plan was supported by poor modelling, and was "completely at odds" with current and former governments' Tertiary Education Strategy, and their Science and Innovation strategies.

"Future of work analyses suggest 75 per cent of new jobs will require a STEM basis - areas of excellence here including global issues of climate change, marine environment, emergence of diseases, modelling and data analysis," Martin said.

"The plan will damage New Zealand's tertiary education goals to deliver skills for industry and supporting innovation and economic growth."

Martin was joined before the MPs by two other top Massey scientists – Dr Heather Hendrickson and Professor James Dale – who made the case that the campus' College of Sciences was financially sustainable and growing.

'Too many courses, too few students'

This morning, Massey provost Giselle Byrnes and college pro vice-chancellor Professor Ray Geor appeared before the committee to respond to the concerns.

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Byrnes acknowledged that the ideas in the discussion document were controversial, but added the swift way Massey had adapted to Covid-19 showed it was on the right path to address "long-standing problems" around learning.

She said distance and online learning at Massey has been growing at a rate of 9.2 per cent year-on-year, with more than half of students now studying in distance mode.

While Massey offered a range of courses, 60 per cent were enrolled in just 13 qualifications, while 54 per cent of qualifications attracted only five per cent of students.

"It is very expensive to maintain so many different courses across so many campuses and facilities," she said.

"Put simply, we've got too many courses with too few students and this is no longer sustainable … we think this is not an efficient use of precious public funding."

Geor told the committee that the College of Sciences faced "substantial challenges" in what was a highly constrained an increasingly competitive environment.

"The college has been returning significant and worsening year-on-year budget deficits, and in large part this is due to the breadth and duplication of our curriculum," he said.

"We have a very high proportion of course offerings, with low student enrolments, across multiple campuses."

About half of classes had fewer than 15 students, he said.

A large amount of feedback on the proposals was being analysed by US-based Hanover Research, and its report, due next week, could lead to Massey revising its recommendations.

Proposals to stop offering science degrees from Massey University's Albany campus have been met with an angry backlash from many staff and students. Photo / Supplied
Proposals to stop offering science degrees from Massey University's Albany campus have been met with an angry backlash from many staff and students. Photo / Supplied

Meanwhile, a second discussion document was expected to be released in late July.

"So this process still has some way to run, and I am confident from this effort we will develop an academic plan that substantially strengthens outcomes for our students and stakeholders going forward," Geor said.

Leaders grilled

The committee's chair, National MP and science spokeswoman Parmjeet Parmar, quizzed Geor and Byrnes why scientists thought the axing of science at Albany was a foregone conclusion, and why the proposals had landed on the first day of semester.

Geor responded that he didn't see the proposals as being a "single option" – adding that other ideas may come to the fore throughout the process – and said they would have caused stress at any time they were released.

"We were at a point where we needed to get this discussion going … because of the urgency around our financial situation, we had to move that process forward."

Parmar asked the pair about the obvious impact that the proposals would have on people's ability to learn locally in Auckland – and also on the future pipeline of New Zealand scientists.

Geor replied that STEM subjects were important to Massey, and its focus was on becoming more efficient and reducing duplication, rather than cutting subjects.

But he acknowledged another concern raised by Parmar – that there was a risk of losing scientists to other countries.

East Coast Bays MP Erica Stanford asked whether Massey had undertaken a financial analysis before it released the discussion document.

Geor said one was carried out, and mostly focused around 2019's financial outcomes and the budget for 2020, along with projected revenue.

Yet Stanford cited a letter she'd obtained through the Official Information Act, in which Massey's governance and assurance director Jodie Banner said there had been no financial analysis undertaken.

Byrnes clarified that was referring to Digital Plus, for which there was only a set of principles to guide decision-making.

Stanford also asked whether the financial analysis had separated out the college's Albany operations from those at Palmerston North.

Massey scientists had repeatedly asked for a breakdown, Stanford said, but been told that this didn't exist, and that a separation of finances never happened.

"You have said that this is a financial problem. I'm keen to know why this information hasn't been released, or why I've been told it doesn't exist."

National and East Coast Bays MP Erica Stanford. Photo / Derek Cheng
National and East Coast Bays MP Erica Stanford. Photo / Derek Cheng

Geor responded: "I think we've got to be clear on the issues that we are talking about. One is relating to the financial situation of the college, and those data do exist."

A modelling scenario, predicting student numbers and other forms of income, was a different issue, he said.

Stanford also asked why Massey's new science programme – which only began this year – hadn't been allowed to properly run before the leadership team proposed the changes.

Geor acknowledged that a lot of work had gone into the programme, and that this had been an "important contributor" to improving efficiencies, but more needed to be done.

Today's session marked the latest episode in an ongoing saga, that's drawn anger and concern from across the scientific community.

One prominent science commentator, Professor Shaun Hendy, described the unfolding situation as potentially "the biggest blow to the New Zealand science community in a generation".