Furious Australian National University staff and students have lashed what they say is a "misguided" decision to shut the division which produced the university's first Nobel Prize winner.
The ANU is set to axe up to 22 jobs and the entire neuroscience division in a bid to save money, but the move will likely affect several more students.
Staff at the Eccles Institute of Neuroscience were briefed about the decision on Wednesday afternoon and it follows the university's move to cut almost 200 jobs in the wake of the coronavirus downturn.
Dean of the ANU College of Health and Medicine Russell Gruen will present the plan to the rest of ANU today. In his address, he will claim the university considered shutting its entire medicine or psychology divisions.
"One option we considered was to stop doing medicine, or psychology, or population health altogether - meaning stop teaching and research in a whole discipline," he will say.
"But we all felt these are vital core disciplines that must flourish at ANU, and in fact the synergies between physical health, mental health, public health and human behaviour are really coming to the fore in light of the pandemic.
"By ensuring the disciplines flourish, and fostering the interdisciplinary and interprofessional connections, we felt ANU has an opportunity to be a global leader in adapting to a new frame."
The neuroscience institute was named after Sir John Eccles who was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1963 for his neuroscience research.
Australian universities have suffered in the past 12 months, with border closures leading to a major decrease in revenue due to a lack of international students.
The ANU is expected to report a deficit of more than $200 million this year.
"We have just learned that as part of the College of Health and Medicine managing change proposal, the Eccles Institute of Neuroscience (EIN) will be dissolved along with related neuroscience units, degrees, and specialisations," ANU PhD candidate Nathan Reynolds said on Twitter.
"This is misguided and we, the students of the Eccles Institute, will be preparing a reasoned response during the current two week consultation period. Part of this response will include outlining the impact of this proposal on the students."
Disenchanted students and staff will be given a chance to fight for their jobs, but they are concerned the university has already made up its mind after cutting several jobs in the past 12 months.
The College of Science took a hit last year, with 103 jobs lost and among those facing redundancy were two academics who were recently awarded prestigious Australian Research Council discovery grants, throwing their research projects into doubt.
The university flagged changes to the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, the Research School of Biology, the Research School of Chemistry, the Research School of Earth Sciences and the Research School of Physics were outlined in a proposal last year.
Professor Gruen said that the school had considered numerous options before putting forward the proposal, including making cuts to all four schools at the college.
***prepared by the students of the EIN.***— Nathan Reynolds (@NathanReynolds5) March 17, 2021
We have just learned that as part of the College of Health and Medicine managing change proposal, the Eccles Institute of Neuroscience (EIN) will be dissolved along with related neuroscience units, degrees, and specialisations. 1/4
Professor Gruen said alongside the job losses proposal would see the college renamed as the College of Health Medicine and Psychological Science.
He said the proposal would minimise the impact of job losses.
"These changes are aimed to make it possible to work within a smaller budget, continue to deliver the excellence that we demand of each other, and also open up opportunities for new sources of income," he said.
"In the end we want to optimise our staff and student experience.
"The first thing to say about the college change proposal is that it is necessary because the financial impact of the global pandemic meant all Australian universities had to reduce their operating costs.
"As you have heard from the vice-chancellor, our university ran a large deficit in 2020 - around $200m - and is expecting to run deficits in 2021 and 2022 that pretty much take us up to our debt ceiling.
"All colleges and portfolios have been allocated reduced operating budgets for 2021 and beyond - the College of Health and Medicine's allocation for 2021 is $54.7m. This is almost $12m less than the $66m we expected to need for 2020 at this time last year, and $6m less than the $61m we actually spent in 2020, after our expenditure was highly constrained and we were working in ways none of us would want to work going forward."
The hit to the neuroscience division is a fresh blow after the document last year said: "The proposed changes are business-driven and are designed to support ongoing sustainability of the college, to ensure that the college is meeting the future needs of our students, and to ensure that the college continues to contribute strongly to the university's international standing."
The ANU's Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt said in December the cuts were necessary to ensure the long-term viability of the university.
He acknowledged that "everyone has made sacrifices" but the university was "not yet through the disruption".
"Staff generously deferred a pay rise, an act that saved $13.5 million and up to 90 positions," Professor Schmidt said.
"Staff have also made generous donations throughout 2020 to the ANU Staff Urgent Relief Fund - providing support to 68 staff totalling $116,000."
Students at the institute have described the decision by the university as "misguided".
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