18 Oct 2023

Massey University science staff and students fight to save their jobs and studies

From Checkpoint, 5:49 pm on 18 October 2023

Science staff and students at Massey University are fighting to save their jobs, and their studies.

The cash-strapped university is proposing to slash science courses from its Albany campus, which would hollow out a new high-tech building full of specialised labs.

It is part of Massey's scenic grounds on Auckland's North Shore, which are shrouded with an air of uncertainty as proposed job cuts hang over this campus. 

More than 100 jobs are on the line at Massey, the Tertiary Education Union says, including from the schools of natural sciences, and food and advanced technology - programmes that would cease to exist in Auckland.

Only a year ago, a new Innovation Complex opened its doors in Albany, reportedly costing $120 million. The university would not confirm the price.

It was to be called the Innovation and Science Complex, but the science part of the name was quietly dropped, although it remains on some signs in the building.

Professor of behavioural ecology Dianne Brunton.

Professor of behavioural ecology Dianne Brunton. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

Professor Dianne Brunton - an expert in conservation biology whose job is on the line - showed RNZ what the complex had to offer this week.

"This space - all of these labs, the whole building, really, is a building for the future, a building for the next 20 to 40 years," she said. "And [for the] students and the staff and the growth we'll see in the sciences here on the North Shore, where the population is just ballooning.

"It's not going to stop. It's just going to keep going."

Staff and students have until Friday to have their say on Massey's science proposals as the university deals with an expected shortfall of about $50m for the year.

"We were in little huts. They were temporary buildings and they were fitted out," Brunton said of the previous office and lab space.

"They were like Lockwood houses, if you remember that far back. They're little prefabs, but they worked.

"In fact, some of the best Covid work was done on that campus by researchers that were here with us then, and they've since gone."

Brunton said Albany staff were determined to offer solutions to the university, and work with it so they could remain, including on how they pay to use their space.

Massey effectively charges rent for floor space to its colleges, and science takes up room.

"There're some solutions to that and one of them is to have biotech companies in. We've had a number of biotech companies working in the molecular lab, basically leasing it out," Brunton said.

"We've got lots of ideas about other things, but the instability that we're seeing at the moment makes that a bit tricky."

The Innovation Complex is an award-winning building, and a leader in its field.

"It's not just a science building - make that clear. There's lots of student space, work space, flexible teaching space, but really state-of-the-art, really efficient labs," Brunton said.

Among its jewels are a chamber for detecting spider vibrations and a marine wet lab which allows for experiments using live animals thanks to a reticulated salt water system.

In the previous buildings, buckets of salt water sourced from the sea had to suffice.

Massey University's Innovation Complex opened its doors in Albany in 2022. It houses several disciplines and contains specialised spaces and equipment.

Massey University's Innovation Complex opened its doors in Albany in 2022. It houses several disciplines and contains specialised spaces and equipment. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

Brunton said she did not know what would happen to specialised spaces or equipment if the Massey proposal went through.

"Some of these pieces of equipment are not the kind a local company could come in and use."

Staff had to have hope the proposal would not go through, she said.

She also raised concerns about the quality of the financial information made available on which staff and students could make submissions.

Many students are in limbo due to the threat to cut courses from the Albany campus.

Third-year food technology student Cynthia Fan, 21, said those affected were trying to prepare for exams, while worrying about where they'd be next year and organising submissions.

Under the proposal, food technology students were among those who might have to continue their studies at Palmerston North, unless Massey decided to stagger the cessation of the courses in Albany.

"The thing that really sucks is I have no idea and we have no idea. The uni has said that they will not speak to students," Fan said.

"They say that they might make teaching plans for each individual student on a case by case basis, but they've said they won't get started with that until the decision goes through on 27 November, which is very late," she said.

"It's very late to look for accommodation or apply for any other uni."

Fan said she was unlikely to move to Palmerston North to continue her studies, focusing on product development .

"My situation, personally, I have sports here in Auckland as well that I can only do in Auckland. 

"Also, I love Auckland. All my friends are here. My support system is entirely here. I have no one in Palmy, and all my lecturers, people I have built connections with, they're all here."

Fan would like to see the university focused on helping its students.

"I think in the first week [after the proposal was announced] everyone was hard panicking. I think a lot of people missed lectures because they didn't have energy.

"They tell us to keep going as if nothing happened. It's a bit ridiculous. You can't really just do that. 

"They say, 'Work hard to get through this year', but if the whole degree is removed what did you work hard for?"

A sign protesting against Massey University's proposal to slash courses and jobs.

A sign protesting against Massey University's proposal to slash courses and jobs. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

'Financial sustainability is urgent,' university says

In a statement, Professor Ray Geor, pro vice-chancellor for Massey's College of Sciences, said the university's financial statements were inspected and approved by Audit NZ.
"During a financial year, it is expected there could be adjustments. Additionally, during the close-inspection focus of the proposal for change processes, we expect there will be refinements of information," Geor said.

"Organisational finances are never static. However, we are confident that adjustments will be minor and not substantive to the financial drivers for the need for a proposal for change," he said.

"As we are funded by taxpayers, part of being a financially responsible organisation is exploring revenue streams, as many tertiary education providers are doing within New Zealand.

"Staff can provide avenues for exploration and the College of Sciences will consider all feedback. However, the need to reduce costs and generate income to ensure financial sustainability is urgent for this year and for the near term - 2024-2027." 

The college would still have a presence in Auckland, with its construction and computational sciences programmes, and research, Geor said.
"As we are considering a proposal for change, no final decisions have been made regarding specific equipment.

"It would be anticipated that once a final decision is made, it would either transfer to the remaining programmes, transfer to another campus location or be decommissioned." 

No decisions would be made until the proposal was "carefully and thoroughly" considered by the college, staff, students and the wider university community, he said.

"Currently enrolled students have the opportunity to provide feedback. Should any proposed changes be adopted as a result, Massey will contact students to explain what this might mean for them, depending on their individual circumstance.

"Once a final decision is reached, we will be able to provide clear details of how Massey would enable their study going into 2024."

He pointed to a list of online frequently asked questions the university was updating.

A university spokesperson said construction for the Innovation Complex finished late last year, but "total expenditure and a breakdown of costs are not available."

They said it housed several disciplines across the university.

When asked if Massey was suffering damage to its reputation, the spokesperson said: "The changes proposed maintain our core disciplines as part of our academic portfolio, with some campus consolidation, and aim to ensure they are supported under the current financial conditions.

"Massey is committed to the College of Sciences and is proud of its contributions to capability development and knowledge creation in areas critical to Aotearoa New Zealand such as agriculture, food technology, veterinary and animal sciences, computational science and construction, alongside other fundamental science subjects."