Merger of BioSci and HRI sparks anger

Students and staff have expressed concerns over the creation of a new School of Life Sciences.

The new School will combine the Department of Biological Sciences and the Warwick Horticultural Research Institute (HRI), which is currently based at a campus in Wellesbourne, south of Leamington Spa. Proposals on the specifics of the School’s creation include plans to relocate most of the facilities associated with life sciences teaching to the main campus, throwing the future of the HRI campus into question.

The creation of the new school will also involve the compulsory redundancy of several staff members, raising questions about the potential for disruption to current students’ studies and the future reputation of the discipline at Warwick.

University press officer Peter Dunn said the merger of HRI and Biological Sciences is intended “to bring together the research strengths of our existing departments of Biological Sciences and Warwick HRI”.

“Warwick HRI currently has a £2 million a year operating deficit and that deficit is projected to grow. We believe that the establishment of the new School of Life Sciences will enable us to deliver a high quality and financially sustainable research programme,” Dunn said.

Despite assurances from the University that the needs of students will be taken into account, many students affected by the merger feel their voices are being ignored.

An email sent to students by Professor Stuart Palmer, the interim chair of the School of Life Sciences, said, “Where questions have been asked we will either update through the FAQs or by letting you [science faculty students] know at which stage in the process the information you need will become available. We will continue to communicate with you at each stage of the process.”

However, John Lapage, the undergraduate science faculty representative, said in a statement: “To accept these assurances at face value is to surrender ourselves to further dictation of decisions, rather than the consultation we deserve.”

Students’ Union Education Officer Sumaiya Khaku echoed this sentiment. “Consultation was done with some students and some people from the SU last year. However, I believe that this was not enough and we will continue to insist that students should be consulted through SSLCs in the future,” she said.

Dunn played down concerns over lack of consultation. “There is still a significant period of time for us to continue to consider comments and advice from a range of organisations and we will explore with them every opportunity to resource excellent quality, financially sustainable research programmes in the new School,” he said.

The Students’ Union raised objections to the plans in an emergency meeting of the University Senate on 16 November.

In a statement, the Union said the concerns it raised fell under “five different categories: Continuity of supervisors for PhD students; consultation with the students concerned prior to implementation; representation on the bodies that make the decisions about the new School; improvement of quality of teaching and research; [and] the timescale”.

According to the Students’ Union, the University said it could not guarantee that students could remain with their current supervisors, but would be able to continue their degrees. In cases where students might be adversely affected by having to switch tutors, Dunn said that the University would “deal with any situation as it arises on an individual basis”.

The Union claimed its concerns about quality of teaching were “ignored” when raised in Senate.

Academic staff have also objected to the plans.

Dr Ken Flint, chair of the Warwick branch of the University and College Union (UCU), which represents lecturers and professors, told the Boar, “UCU opposes any move to make academic or support staff compulsorily redundant. Trade union representatives do not welcome the establishment of the school and in fact our submission to Senate was totally against the formation of the school.

“For the staff at all levels the proposals will mean significant redundancies…. [The UCU] estimates that at least 120 staff will be made redundant across the two departments in the next 12 months.”

Flint also commented on the potential impact of the proposals on students. “The University, when asked, makes the commitment to maintain the current degree portfolio of the two departments but they cannot say how the merger will affect modules as some key staff who teach core modules especially in Biomedical Science and Biochemistry could be made redundant under the current proposals,” he said.

Another union, Prospect, which represents professional scientists, called the proposals “scientific vandalism”. Prospect’s Vice-President, Nigel Titchen, said, “World food production has to double by 2050 to keep up with population growth. Warwick HRI does vital research on how to grow more food without damaging the environment. The University plans will wreck this globally important work.”

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