Change management meets biomedicine

University of Otago biomedical sciences’ Lindo Ferguson Building. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
University of Otago biomedical sciences’ Lindo Ferguson Building. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
Gareth Jones has grave fears for the future of Otago’s school of biomedical sciences.

The behemoth of "management of change" has finally reached the school of biomedical sciences, one of the largest and most successful areas within the University of Otago; one of the jewels in Otago’s crown (the school earns 30% of the university’s external research funding).

It is now ready to do its work of dissection, aiming to reduce the number of academic staff by around 13. Even more surprisingly, the school is not in deficit.

But it is not sufficiently in the black to escape the tentacles of the cost-cutting measures sweeping across the university.

The departments of anatomy and physiology within the school were recently placed number 30 in the 2024 QS World University Rankings by Subject, an achievement rightly lauded by the university.

One might have thought that the university would have done everything it could to shore up and strengthen such departments.

But this is not the case — they are slated to lose between seven and 11 academic staff. No matter what justification is provided for this move, the result can only mean the research performance of these departments will be weakened.

There is no doubt that the leadership within the school is striving to protect its reputation and standing, since it is fully aware of the realities of the international research environment as well as of the high calibre of its staff.

It is not as though the school has been performing badly in recent years, even in financial terms. Since 2019 its income and expenditure have both risen by around 6%, whereas the divisional and central costs ascribed to the school have risen by more than twice that percentage, with huge negative implications for the school.

Cutting the school’s academic staff numbers will not directly alleviate the runaway central costs. What it will do is weaken the teaching and research within the school, something that will undoubtedly have negative repercussions for the attractiveness of the biomedical sciences to prospective students and their parents.

As I contemplate this situation as a retired senior staff member whose ongoing employment is not under threat, I must express a range of fears.

My first fear is for those young emerging academic staff who have only been employed in the school for a very few years. They have not had sufficient time to establish themselves as high-performing academic staff. They are still on an upwards trajectory. Their academic careers may be over before they have barely begun.

My second fear is for those academic staff who have been working extremely hard to adapt courses with a view to saving money. Some of these have sacrificed research time with a flow-on effect on their research productivity. This places them at a disadvantage when compared to some of their colleagues in a competitive management-of-change exercise.

My third fear is for the postgraduate students, of which there are a very large number in the school. They have been feeling uneasy over many months as they have heard about the financial woes of the university, wondering how these will affect them.

Not that long ago, some of them looked forward to the prospect of gaining a postdoctoral position as the first step into a research career elsewhere. These positions have dried up as money once available in successful departments has disappeared through cost-cutting.

The situation is now far more dire as they wonder whether their supervisors will even retain their positions. It is very difficult to retain camaraderie within such an environment.

My fourth fear is for the research being undertaken within these departments. To function at high international standards is demanding at the best of times. It requires trust and support from the university at every level.

It requires intense commitment that is easily damaged if staff doubt whether the university is 100% behind them. If they feel they could be let go at any time through no fault of their own, this trust will dissipate very rapidly.

My fifth fear is that the close integration between teaching and research will be lost.

We have assiduously espoused the idea that we are a research-driven university, characterised by research-informed teaching. The bulk of our teachers should be active researchers, bringing their research insights to bear on their teaching.

The temptation to give this up is considerable when money is tight. But the result will be a largely teaching institution.

Over my career I have worked in three universities — University College London, the University of Western Australia, and the University of Otago. I am also an alumnus of all three and I have felt privileged to have had an association with all three.

Sadly, over recent years I have begun to doubt this with respect to Otago.

I do hope that my worst fears are not realised.

— Gareth Jones is Emeritus Professor of Anatomy, University of Otago.