More Funding Needed for Universities to Secure NZ’s Science and Technology Future

June 09, 2023

New Zealand’s tertiary education sector is in trouble. So too is Aotearoa’s future capacity to function effectively as a knowledge-informed society with an economy that is underpinned by technology. In the last 6 months, most of our universities have announced financially-driven restructures involving significant staff losses. This equates to hundreds of jobs lost from each institution, with over 10% of their workforce to be cut. Capability in crucial STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects will be damaged.

The New Zealand Institute of Chemistry (NZIC) is the professional society of chemists that operates throughout Aotearoa, representing chemists from industry, Crown Research Institutes, legal, analytical and educational sectors (secondary and tertiary staff, and students). We are gravely concerned about the latest announcements of sweeping job losses at Otago University and Victoria University of Wellington, as well as reductions of STEM programmes at Waikato University, on the heels of major staff cuts at Massey University and Auckland University of Technology. The irony is that the losses come as the government announces a $450 million investment to make Wellington a “Science City” through collaborations between research institutes such as GNS, NIWA and Callaghan Innovation, and these very universities that are proposing significant cuts in their science programmes. The ambitious research strategy goals outlined in Te Ara Paerangi, striving to grow the New Zealand economy through investment in Research, Science and Innovation, are also compromised by reductions in tertiary education STEM programmes.

Chemistry underpins all sciences, from climate change to vaccine develoment. It is one of the core science subjects in secondary schools because it provides both a fundamental understanding of the structure of matter and the basis for technological innovations and solutions. Contrary to popular imagery, chemists do not just don white lab coats and watch coloured mixtures of bubbling liquids. NZIC members are developing new high-efficiency solar cells, measuring the contaminants in our water and air, finding the next breakthrough in medicine, making greener building materials and biofuels, improving the flavours of beer and wine, determining the safety of food and vape additives, studying how to decrease the methane production of cattle and much much more. All of these important contributions require interdisciplinarity and collaboration between multiple science subjects. Thus, universities need a broad expertise base: job cuts in any discipline gravely threaten this.

Our concerns about the disinvestment in chemistry (and other sciences) at New Zealand universities are that:

  • Diminishing STEM disciplines such as chemistry by reducing or removing teaching programmes will have increasingly detrimental effects on New Zealand’s ability to meet future technological and environmental challenges.
  • Retaining chemistry is vital to any tertiary institution that wants to keep offering viable interdisciplinary science and technology programmes.
  • Strong university-level training across STEM subjects is essential to grow the pipeline of teachers in these hard-to-staff fields, which is a stated priority for education in Aotearoa.
  • Our universities are training the scientists, teachers and innovators of tomorrow, and we as a country need them to be exceptional. They will be facing ever-increasing challenges, as climate change, scarcity of resources, misinformation (e.g. about vaccines or water fluoridation), infectious diseases, antibiotic resistance, and population growth challenge our society. New Zealand, especially, has the additional challenge of being a remote nation with a small domestic market. We need to accelerate our innovation, underpinned by excellent science and technology, in order to succeed economically and environmentally. For this, Aotearoa requires cutting-edge research, teaching and innovation, and our university sector has been, currently is, and must continue to be a major player in achieving this.

    UK universities experienced similar financial constraints, and their consequences, in the 2000s. After several closures (and threatened closures) of chemistry and physics departments, the government recognised that chemistry and physics were “strategically important but vulnerable subjects” due to the high costs of laboratory space, chemicals, equipment and the necessity of direct supervision of laboratory work by academic staff. The result of parliamentary investigations and reviews was increased funding for chemistry and physics disciplines.

    The NZIC urges the New Zealand Government to provide the inflation-adjusted relief needed by our tertiary education sector so that we, as a nation, can meet the positive and ambitious research strategy goals outlined in Te Ara Paerangi and to make Wellington Science City a reality.

    Press Release from the President of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry (NZIC)

    February 24, 2020

    Associate Professor Sarah Masters

    On Monday 24th February Massey University released a proposal document for discussion around provision of science teaching and research at its Massey Albany Campus. The New Zealand Institute of Chemistry (NZIC) has many staff and student Members who work and study at the Albany campus as well as several Fellows. The NZIC is very concerned regarding the proposal to remove provision for chemistry teaching and research at Albany. We are also deeply disturbed to hear that many of our members and indeed all faculty, support staff and students based there are very stressed and struggling to cope with the uncertainty surrounding this process.

    Chemistry was one of the original science subjects offered at Massey Albany in a supporting role to Food Tech when the sciences were established on site ~25 years ago. The chemistry faculty, like all chemistry groups in NZ, provide foundational knowledge and capabilities to many of the other sciences and engineering at Albany. The faculty have established longstanding contacts with local industry and, although the chemistry major has only been at Albany for 7 years, the graduates are sought after and have found employment in many local and international companies, educational institutions, and have gone on to higher degrees.

    Across the University, Chemistry is recognised as one of the outstanding performers in terms of research performance (QS top 500) and the Albany group make a significant contribution to this overall ranking. They have strong links to many outstanding institutions and researchers around the world. Within the wider community they serve as a focal point for chemistry education with, amongst other activities, workshops targeted to assist schools to deliver the NCEA spectroscopy standard being given to 320 students from more than 10 local high schools.

    “The NZIC understands, and supports, the need for consultation on this proposal however the stress and uncertainty being suffered by staff and students is of great concern” states Associate Professor Masters. “Massey University has a duty of care to all staff and students and this has not been met in the handling of this process. The whole thing has been very poorly managed. The NZIC fully supports the retention of science teaching and research at the Albany campus and particularly that in the discipline of Chemistry.”

    We are particularly concerned around the very short timeframes for both consultation and proposed implementation should this proposal go ahead.

    NZIC President, Associate Professor Sarah Masters, 03 369 4229, 0220922630
    NZIC Administrator, Joanna Dowle

    Press Release from the President of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry (NZIC)

    February 20, 2020

    Associate Professor Sarah Masters

    On Thursday 20th February the Ministry of Education made a press release regarding the changes to the NCEA level 1 subject list. The intention to remove all chemistry based standards at Level 1 has shocked our chemistry community. Our Secondary Chemistry Educators of New Zealand (SCENZ) sub-branch, which represents a large number of schools, has been fielding comments regarding these changes and the mood of the community is very clear. Our community has been actively engaging in what was believed to be an on-going consultation process around the proposed changes that we understood does not close until 1 March.

    “Our secondary and tertiary chemical education communities are deeply concerned by the process surrounding this announcement by the Ministry of Education. The timing of the announcement is particularly concerning given that the feedback on the Level 1 trial has not yet closed” states Associate Professor Masters. “This is extremely disappointing.”

    The NZIC’s education branch has been actively analysing the proposed Science standards. At a recent meeting concern was raised over the proposal to replace the existing detailed matrix of science standards with four standards that focus solely on the Nature of Science. Of particular concern is the reduced opportunities that students will have under the current proposals to understand how the world works from a chemistry perspective. This in turn limits their opportunities to become scientifically literate citizens. Hence the usefulness of the Nature of Science standards will be limited by the students’ lack of a basic understanding of the scientific principles and concepts.

    “The NZIC supports the concept of opening science to more students with a wide range of backgrounds and we welcome efforts to achieve this. However, we feel that this can be achieved without the erosion of the discipline specific standards that students need as a scaffold on which to build more advanced concepts and understanding” states Associate Professor Masters. We are particularly concerned that the proposed Science standards do not embrace sufficient conceptual understanding to enable students to progress to higher levels of chemistry. We are also concerned that students at this level are not necessarily equipped with the tools to undertake the investigative nature of the proposed standards.

    We note with serious apprehension that no details have yet been provided about the structure of learning in chemistry at higher levels. Finally, the proposed changes will impose unrealistic demands on professional development for New Zealand’s chemistry teachers. The NZIC is willing and well placed to contribute to future changes in NCEA while also helping to ensure changes reflect the needs of industry and the scientific community of New Zealand. The NZIC looks forward to having a productive discussion with the Ministry of Education over the changes to NCEA Level 1 in the coming months to achieve a positive outcome for all.

    NZIC President, Associate Professor Sarah Masters, 03 369 4229, 0220922630
    NZIC Administrator, Joanna Dowle