There have been a worrying number of Chemistry departments shut down in recent years, as the marketisation of education forces a move towards maximising profits. Whilst it’s always going to be expensive to keep these institutions open, the benefits are a generation of scientists who will shape the future of sustainability, industry and medicine.
Given the recent announcements of changes to technical staff in our own Chemistry department, it seems destined for the same fate. Eight are being made redundant, with a collective of 200 years experience between them.
The department has put forward a plan that would see the same number of technical staff hired to replace those lost, but it’s rumoured that new contracts are at a much lower pay grade. This would leave a huge loss of skills in the technical support provided, and poses many questions about the future of the department. What will happen to postgraduate students during the interim period where we are without sufficiently trained technical staff? Surely research would halt without operation of the technical services and students with degree deadlines would be forced to play catch-up.
Included among the staff at risk are two safety officers. I’d have thought safety was pretty important in a Chemistry department, what with all the hazardous chemicals, but what would I know – I’m just a student.
The decision falls at an already busy time, with the department undergoing major changes due to the new course design. Students recruited onto this new course were supposed to have access to a wider variety of choices, but will likely find themselves restricted by the lack of technical support. They will undertake research projects which will not have the in-depth expertise required to ensure their success, with work experience options removed completely. This begs the question of whether chemistry graduates will still have the skills needed for employment.
What looks like a cost-cutting solution has the potential to be a money-pit disaster. There’s the cost of redundancy pay, training new staff, delayed research, reduced student numbers, outsourcing work that cannot be replaced, and machinery inevitably breaking under inexperienced hands.
It’s also worth saying that we’re not the only department relying on our technical support staff. The people facing redundancy work across science departments and even sometimes across faculties, supporting interdisciplinary research collaborations. Can we really maintain our status as a top-100 research institution without our all-important technical support staff? I say not.
There is no doubt that student voices have been taken more seriously by the university in recent years. I personally have had many positive conversations with my department, up to and including the curriculum review. It is a huge step backwards that no students were consulted about this proposal. We urgently need students, staff and managers to come together for the good of the department.
Image: David Dixon