Medical students at the Australian National University began the academic year full of promise. The next generation of doctors were hoping to get back to some normalcy after their labs were cancelled last year when the pandemic hit.
Instead, more uncertainty has arisen from budget cuts to the College of Health and Medicine.
The ANU recorded a $300 million surplus in 2019 and a $225.6 million surplus in 2018. This plunged to an estimated $219 million deficit in 2020. Similar-sized operating deficits are expected for the next three years.
The university has put this down to the flow of fee-paying international students being turned off due to border restrictions.
Vice-chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt said the university was particularly hard hit because it had made the conscious decision to reduce the student intake in 2020 to improve the student experience.
The College of Health and Medicine - populated by experts and researchers who have advised governments on how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic - hasn't been spared from deep budget cuts.
Dean of the college Professor Russell Gruen told staff the college considered scrapping medicine, psychology or population health altogether.
Instead it was proposed that the neuroscience discipline be wound up and professional staff be "consolidated." Three schools would be blended into the National Centres for Epidemiology, Psychology and Population Health (NCEPPH).
The ANU Medical School would no longer be a stand-alone entity. Three academic positions and two professional positions would be "disestablished" under the plan while remaining academics would be transferred to the research schools.
ANU Medical Students' Society president Gabrielle Gross said students were deeply concerned about loss of the school's identity.
"With that name, there's been many relationships built with ACT Health and New South Wales Health and other stakeholders into our medical school," she said.
"As much as it is just a name, for clinicians being affiliated with an ANU Medical School, that has value and for students, ANU Medicine is maybe not as recognisable as something like ANU Medical School."
Professor of General Practice Kirsty Douglas said removing the identity of the organisation would be a huge step backward.
"Getting a medical school in the ACT was a nearly 40-year project," she said.
It was announced in 2002 the Clinical School of University of Sydney would establish the ANU Medical school two years later in partnership with the ACT government.
The school accepts 100 students per year into the four-year medical degree and prides itself on supportive relationships between staff and students. All students are guaranteed an internship with Canberra Health Service at the end of their degree, creating a steady supply of clinicians for the territory.
A Canberra Health Service spokeswoman said more than 450 clinicians taught in the medical program as part of the 20 per cent of their weekly hours set aside for non-clinical work.
The ACT government also pays for the nine clinical discipline chair positions as well as year three and four coordinator and assessment chair roles. It also provides in-kind support through the Canberra Hospital campus.
Paediatrician Associate Professor Graham J Reynolds said clinicians employed by ACT Health were facing an increasing medical load which was eating into teaching time. He was concerned the proposal would get rid of experienced staff in a bit to save money.
"Disestablishment of a number of positions is not the way to go about it. There is a budget imperative which is driving change," he said.
"You don't pick on most vulnerable in that and say somebody else can do the job, but they can't really."
Second-year medical student Jessie Booth instigated a letter-writing campaign when she discovered anatomy lecturer and first-year coordinator Dr Zan-Min Song's position would be disestablished under the current plan.
"This man is incredibly well-loved. He's warm but specific. He's everything you want your doctor to be," Booth said.
Dr Song migrated from China and had worked at the ANU for about 20 years. Booth said he was the first point of contact for the first-year students and brought extensive emergency room and research experience to the school.
An ANU spokesman said no decisions had been made around the lecturer's position.
"Race, gender and any other personal characteristics have nothing to do with the hard decisions that have to be made in very challenging economic times," the spokesman said.
The university has bowed to pressure from staff and students to extend the two-week consultation time by one week as stakeholders unpacked the complex proposal.
But medical students and clinicians still felt uneasy about the lack of detail in the proposal about how the new structure would operate.
Douglas was worried the university was pursuing world-leading, cutting-edge research at the expense of less glamorous health research the ANU Medical School undertook.
"It adds enormous value to the local community but doesn't necessarily get published in The Lancet," she said.
As a member of the Faculty Executive of the ANU Medical School, Douglas was not allowed to hear details of the proposal until it was revealed publicly last week.
"I don't think there's been adequate consultation," she said.
The Australian Medical Council is responsible for granting accreditation for medical schools to operate.
The ANU spokesman said the university had consulted the Australian Medical Council and been assured the proposed changes would not have any impact on accreditation.
"ANU will still continue to conduct world-class medical research and teaching," the spokesman said.
But Reynolds was worried the council would not like the new-look ANU Medicine.
"Australian Medical Council accreditation is good for five years. By the time it rolls around I'm fearful that we won't have medical school," Reynolds said.
"That, for the ACT, is a huge risk."
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