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Chemistry, Genetics, Molecular Biology under fire in UWA’s latest round of job cuts

The University of Western Australia is set to lay off several senior research and teaching staff in the School of Molecular Sciences.

The University of Western Australia is set to lay off several senior research and teaching staff in the School of Molecular Sciences, according to an internal document sent to select staff members on Thursday.

In the University’s ongoing bid to address purported structural deficits, the cuts were not the only cost-saving measures announced this week. A memo, sent out to all UWA staff on Friday, also flagged amendments to a proposal to restructure the School of Social Sciences. The original proposal, released on 6th July, included plans to terminate Sociology and Anthropology, and fire 16 teaching and research staff.

The developments come after students unleashed a torrent of opprobrium toward UWA’s management team, led by Vice Chancellor Amit Chakma. 

Amendments to original Social Sciences proposal “rushed” and “vastly different”

With the subject line “Structural Reform Update,” UWA staff were informed of amendments to the original measures in an email from the Vice Chancellor on Friday.

Under the amendments, the Anthropology major will be merged with Geography, and 2 staff members will be retained. A research position will also be retained from Asian Studies, originally proposed to become a teaching-only discipline.

Nicole McEwen, an Anthropology student and the Coordinator for UWA’s Education Action Network, told Honi Soit she was dissatisfied with the amendments, which were “vastly different” to the original proposal.

“These aren’t just amendments—they’ve written a whole new proposal and scrapped the old one. They need to be opened up to another consultation period for feedback,” she said. “UWA management is rushing things through without any genuine consultation, and everyone has been kept in a culture of silence.”

School of Molecular Sciences to be cut by 25 per cent under a new “alarming” proposal to allow focus on “flagship areas”

In addition to the restructure of UWA’s Social Sciences, further cuts have been announced to the School of Molecular Sciences, along with the Office of Research and Finance.

An internal document obtained by Honi reveals that the University plans to lay off 6 out of the 14 senior lecturers and associate professors in Chemistry, and 2 out of 10 in the Genetics and the Biochemistry & Molecular Biology majors.

“It is proposed that the School’s structure, teaching program and research program will be reduced and refined […] to support the University’s priorities for growth and improving the student experience,” the document read.

The cuts will leave the School of Molecular Sciences 25 per cent smaller while increasing its student-staff ratio from 16:1 to between 22:1 and 24:1. Each year, over 1,000 students enrol in first-year Chemistry units, and the University has not made clear how it will seek to “improve the student experience” while constraining teaching capacity.

According to the document, UWA also plans to “reinvigorate the Chemistry discipline” by consolidating the majors of Synthetic Chemistry and Physical & Analytical Chemistry under one single Chemistry major.

Computational Chemistry will also be discontinued to concentrate “research into the flagship areas of: Systems Biology, Synthetic Biology, Nanotechnology, Materials Science.”

The move is reminiscent of the proposal made to Social Sciences, which similarly rationalised cuts to refocus on “flagship areas.” In response to falling revenues, other Australian universities including the University of Melbourne, have also cut back specialist courses for their perceived ‘difficulty.’

Sean Li, a PhD Candidate in Chemistry at UWA, told Honi of a confidential meeting between Dr. Martha Ludwig, Head of Molecular Sciences, and HDR students in which changes were announced. (Staff were barred from participating.)

“Students were shocked, outraged and scared for their livelihoods,” he said. “The Head of School was bombarded with various questions from the students, most of which she deferred to the email feedback system.”

In explaining the cuts, Dr. Ludwig allegedly suggested that students “just Google growing areas in Chemistry.”

Li told Honi the consultation process with staff was “suspicious” and that “anyone whose research doesn’t fit into these trendy new areas will likely get the axe…it’s disgusting,” Li said.

Li’s PhD research, backed by a Forrest Foundation scholarship, involves aspects of Computational Chemistry, which was singled out as a field to be cut under the proposal. “If my supervisor goes, it is likely that there will be no other academic in WA that possesses similar expertise,” he said. “I suspect that the university will attempt to force me to change projects […] in that case, I will simply refuse and do whatever I can to fight against it.”

One senior member of the Chemistry department told Honi that the cuts were “alarming.”

The staff member emphasised the high standards of research output produced by their colleagues and students. “Something is clearly wrong when those who perform well by academic standards are targeted to leave a Group of Eight university,” they said. “I am tired of the ongoing situation at UWA. My mental health is at a very low point.”

Vice Chancellor Chakma has stated that “there are no further proposals to discontinue existing majors in undergraduate degrees across any other School in the University.” However, the NTEU estimates that up to 400 staff members will be laid off to meet UWA’s $40 million cost-saving targets. UWA management has turned down requests from the University’s Academic Board and campus newspaper Pelican Magazine to share the data used in calculating its targets.

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