USyd in Westmead: Expanding or contracting?

Plans are underway for the expansion of the Westmead campus, while the Cumberland campus is slated for closure.

The old and the new: Cumberland campus and the Westmead campus. The old and the new: Cumberland campus and the Westmead campus.

Over the next few years, USyd will undergo some major changes. Wentworth and Merewether will be rebuilt; the F23 Administration and LEES1 buildings will emerge to greet visitors from City Road. However, some impending changes to USyd are even more drastic than building renovations—chief amongst these are proposals to expand the University’s Westmead campus.

The Westmead campus currently plays a small but important role in USyd’s operations, acting as a teaching space for some of the University’s medical and health sciences courses. Many of USyd’s research partnerships also have a presence at Westmead, including the Charles Perkins Centre and the Brain and Mind Centre.

However, USyd wants its Westmead campus to be more than just a health sciences precinct.

In its 2016-2020 Strategic Plan, the University proposes that Westmead should gradually become a multidisciplinary campus, accommodating 6,000 students by 2030. The University’s submission to the Greater Sydney Commission (GSC) also outlines proposals for the Westmead campus, which suggest the campus could grow by 2030 to accommodate anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 students. Previous Honi reports have indicated that some of these students may be undergraduate science and engineering students.

The proposed expansion of the Westmead campus is being accompanied by the closure of other satellite campuses. On the chopping block is the Cumberland campus, which has overlap with the Westmead campus both because of its Western Sydney location and focus on health sciences. The University has attempted to justify this closure: according to a spokesperson, USyd’s “education and research offerings are increasingly [focused] on multidisciplinary work and not on single faculty offerings”. Further, the University argues that co-locating “health sciences and other health disciplines ensures the best outcome for both staff and students”.

Cumberland Council, the local council with jurisdiction over the Cumberland campus, would disagree. In September 2017, the Council published a Draft Employment and Innovation Lands Strategy and Land Use Planning Framework, focusing on economic planning over the next ten years. The framework proposes that “the Lidcombe TAFE and University of Sydney Cumberland Campus [become] a specialised ‘Education and Health Quarter’” and that the Council work “with educational institutions to ensure the long-term viability of the Quarter for educational purposes”.

The University told Honi it was looking for government support for its Westmead plans, but the Land Use Framework potentially indicates that the University already has government support for an education precinct on its still-useable Cumberland campus. As a consequence of this, one wonders whether the University could work with Cumberland Council to foster the long-term growth of the Cumberland campus, instead of chasing a Westmead “super-precinct” and throwing away its years of investment in infrastructure at Cumberland.

Another major issue facing the University’s Westmead expansion is transportation.

If the University is serious about its desires for multidisciplinary education, students will need access to both the Westmead and Camperdown/Darlington campuses, and the different opportunities each is likely to offer. Existing connections from Cumberland, the Conservatorium and the Sydney College of the Arts to the Camperdown/Darlington campus can take anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour.

Given that Westmead is 26 kilometres from Sydney CBD, travel times from Westmead to Camperdown/Darlington are likely to be at the upper end of this range. Commuting from one campus to the other is likely to be time consuming and, given the current state of Sydney’s trains, inefficient. The University recognises this issue, telling Honi that “we need to ensure [Westmead] is well-connected with different transport options”.

But is the University acting to solve it?

In a submission to the GSC, the University lobbied for direct rail connections from the Camperdown/Darlington campus to Westmead to “transport high volumes of people efficiently between the Camperdown/Darlington and Westmead super precincts”. However, the NSW Government has since rejected the University’s proposals for an on-campus train station in favour of a station at Waterloo (as a part of its Sydney Metro City & Southwest project), denting the University’s hopes for a rail connection between Camperdown/Darlington and Westmead.

If the University’s plans for a multidisciplinary Westmead campus proceed, it’s easy to imagine some students will have  classes at both Westmead and Camperdown/Darlington on the same day. The  resulting transport nightmare could see students spend up to an hour travelling across Sydney between two large campuses just to get from one class to another.

The separation of one large multidisciplinary campus from another doesn’t just cause issues with transport options. The University’s proposal to house some science and engineering students at Westmead may see staff and faculties split over campuses, which could impact collaboration between staff. Student life may also be radically changed: it’s an open question how the University will lay the groundwork for a campus culture (societies, parties, eateries etc.) at Westmead, which is currently a health teaching and research precinct.

The questions don’t stop at Westmead. Previous reports have hinted that USyd may be looking to use its Badgerys Creek landholdings as a second campus, an engineering hub, or even a site for commercial activities related to the second Sydney airport.

Honi requested comment from the University about the Land Use Framework, its plans at Badgerys Creek, staff and faculty allocations at Westmead and transport connections to Westmead from Camperdown/Darlington, but received no comment by the time of publication. However, the issues posed to the University remain—the University will eventually have to answer these questions as it progresses further with its Westmead expansion plans.