Researchers facing sudden eviction from Anderson Stuart Building

The eviction has been planned behind closed doors on the basis of contentious work, health and safety advice

Photo of windows of Anderson Stuart building covered with posters which read "Hands off Anderson Stuart" Posters on the Anderson Stuart Building's facade (Source: @StuartBuilding)

Students, academics, and researchers based at the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine have been told they will be removed from research laboratories in the Anderson Stuart Building without any firm reallocation plan and on the basis of tenuous work, health and safety (WHS) advice.

The decision to end investment in Anderson Stuart’s research spaces comes as a result of the prohibitive costs of refurbishment. Nonetheless, the move to separate research and teaching spaces from mid-2019 has sparked backlash from affected individuals within the School of Medical Sciences on social media under Twitter page “Anderson Stuart Building” and Facebook page “Humans of Anderson Stuart.

Honi understands two inspections of the Anderson Stuart wet labs were undertaken in August and October last year. In an email sent to staff before Christmas, Executive Dean Robyn Ward indicated that the inspections had led to a series of recommendations including the closure of the research labs and a planned relocation to a new research premises.

“The recommendations made by the [WHS] team to senior executives led to the conclusion that the University was operating outside its agreed tolerance of risk,” Ward’s email read.

Since December, the faculty has been conducting “one-on-one meetings” with research leaders in the departments of histology, anatomy and physiology as part of an ongoing process expected to continue until February.

The persistent ambiguity of relocation plans and mixed messages arising from each meeting has created a stressful situation for honours students, higher degree research students and academic researchers alike. Ward’s email foreshadowed this outcome.

We appreciate that the current process of information gathering may be a difficult and unsettling experience for staff and students,” it read, encouraging staff to seek health and wellbeing services offered by the University under the Employment Assistance Program if necessary.

Sources within the school told Honi the decision was “career suicide for early career researchers who are just establishing themselves in research.” For students, the “lack of access to a lab for the 6-12 months that would be required for a move will prevent them completing their PhD in the allocated 3-4 years.”

“It would be equally as detrimental to honours students particularly those who have already enrolled in 2019 as any interruption to this one year research project would place them at a severe disadvantage when compared to other students,” an early career researcher and teaching academic in the faculty told Honi.

Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association (SUPRA) caseworkers met affected students last week.

Numerous sources that Honi spoke to expressed a reluctance to go on the record given the precarious future direction of their school.

These one-on-one meetings have not assisted in clarifying current confusion over the short-term future of the school. A research leader who wished to remain anonymous told Honi that they had not been advised of their right to union representation at the meeting, despite university human resources staff attending. Emails seen by Honi confirm that the meeting invitations only note that “one additional colleague” would be allowed to attend. Clause 388 of the University of Sydney 2018-2021 Enterprise Bargaining Agreement provides that “At any stage in the consultation process, staff may involve a Representative of their choice, including a Union representative.”

“I left the meeting feeling bullied, distressed about my future and anxious about what this means for my career, my research students and the undergraduate students that I teach,” another research leader said.

At the time of publication, the University spokesperson confirmed that a draft change plan had not yet been developed. The University is, however, considering relocation of researchers to the Biomedical Building, Australian Technology Park or Molecular Bioscience Building. Any move to these buildings is unlikely to be permanent in light of the incoming Susan Wakil Health Precinct due for completion this year.

Given management’s reliance upon WHS concerns as a justification for the moves, staff have since made substantive attempts to request the reports detailing such concerns. Honi understands that it is common practise for inspection reports to be made readily available in order to mitigate ongoing risks in the workplace. However, requests made by numerous academics for any WHS reports that might exist have proved fruitless. Instead, several sources have indicated that in the one-on-one meetings, staff have been shown a colour-coded Excel spreadsheet outlining which labs had ‘passed’ or ‘failed’ the WHS inspections.

It remains unclear why there has been an unwillingness to release hard-copy explanations of the potential risk-factors. Although no plans have been formally announced, it seems staff will remain in the Anderson Stuart Building until June this year, causing concerns around unknown safety risks.

Honi also requested access to existing WHS reports on the Anderson Stuart Building but a University spokesperson was unable to confirm their existence. They suggested that despite having already informally announced the closure of research labs, investigations into the building’s WHS conditions were still ongoing.

“The specific WHS information pertaining to each wet laboratory is being discussed in the one-on-one meetings with the research groups and further work is being done to ensure we have captured all of the relevant issues…The University executive will share information about the broader WHS issues following further investigation.”

Without access to WHS reports, it is difficult to verify whether all the research labs being moved suffer from WHS inadequacies. Several sources told Honi that although it was possible that the building had some safety concerns, being quite old, much refurbishment had been completed in recent years. Several of the labs to be closed in fact passed their risk assessment.

In particular, Paul Martin’s physiology wet lab was one of the potential research labs to be relocated, despite its 2018 installation costing between $800,000 and $1 million, according to various sources. If this were to be the case, the move would not only disrupt the research schedules of those affected, but would effectively render those installation costs redundant.  

“Future use of the current research spaces is not yet determined, however, it is likely they will be repurposed for teaching or work space,” according to a FAQs document circulated by Executive Dean Robyn Ward.

As for the school’s future, whilst one-on-one meetings continue, the new location of research labs remains unclear. This has provoked concerns amongst staff over the ongoing success of a world-class school. In 2017 and 2018, USyd ranked 10th in Anatomy and Physiology, according to QS University Rankings.   

Of the various concerns raised to Honi, most centred on the impact that splitting the research school up between locations, and from undergraduate teaching labs, would disrupt the collegiality that has long been a feature of the program. This separation would remove the collaborative research between labs that are facilitated by their close proximity.

Moreover, some of the locations would present academics with at least an hour-long round walk between their research labs and undergraduate classrooms. One source communicated that management was putting them “between a rock and a hard place, where their loyalties to their careers [in terms of their research output and contributions to research students] were put against loyalties to undergraduate students. Staff want to fulfil teaching responsibilities, but that means their research interests will suffer.”

The heavy-handed relocation comes amid a formative year for the Faculty of Medicine with the impending launch of the new Health Precinct and the collapse of the Cumberland Health Sciences Campus into main campus.

Dean Robyn Ward did not personally respond to Honi’s request for comment.