Newcastle University plans STEMM precinct at Callaghan, social sciences in CBD

Vice-chancellor Caroline McMillen
Vice-chancellor Caroline McMillen

Vice-chancellor Caroline McMillen says the University of Newcastle is “showing its age a bit” as it plans a new science and technology centre at Callaghan and a fresh foray into the CBD.

The university is planning a new STEMM (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) precinct at its Callaghan campus and appears set to move its Faculty of Education and Arts into Honeysuckle.

The developments would, in effect, leave the university with two main campuses, one for the “hard” sciences at Callaghan and another for social sciences in the city, where the six-month-old NeW Space building already houses the faculties of business and law.   

The moves come as the university ponders the future of ageing buildings at Callaghan and tries to keep pace with significant infrastructure investment by other universities competing for new students.

“I think our university is showing its age a bit, and buildings built in the seventies no longer look quite as cool as they did then,” Professor McMillen told the Newcastle Herald.

“Our colleagues across the state, Australia and the world have responded to those challenges, and students now have options to engage in learning and teaching experiences very different to 50 years ago, and in facilities like NeW Space.

“And in science and technology you need really first-rate, current facilities that do likewise.”

The university told the Herald this month that it hoped to release detailed plans of its Honeysuckle project in the next six months after Newcastle council approved the rezoning of the former rail corridor in December.

Professor McMillen, who is retiring in October, said the university was planning carefully for “the next 50 years” and that collaboration between disciplines and faculties would be crucial.

“There are a whole array of disciplines within and outside the Faculty of Education and Arts that may well through the engagement begin to become part of the planning,” she said.

“I can’t emphasise enough to you that you have to take account of where the workforce is going, what are the needs of our students and our graduates, and how and what way are the industries of the future based in a very different way to the industries of the past.

“You wouldn’t have foreshadowed that law graduates would be working in areas of cyber security or data science, so you have to look across at least the next decade and begin to plan facilities that don’t lock in simply the current mix.”

University of Newcastle's redevelopment site (in orange) at Honeysuckle.

University of Newcastle's redevelopment site (in orange) at Honeysuckle.

Professor McMillen said the university had developed a business case for the new STEMM precinct, which would include new and existing buildings at Callaghan.

She said the project “should be on its way” before she retired.

Meanwhile, the $95 million NeW Space building, designed by EJE and Melbourne firm Lyons, has created a strong modern architectural statement in Newcastle’s CBD.

Professor McMillen said the university’s focus was on providing the best environment for students and staff, rather than creating “iconic” buildings, but it would take “great care” in planning its new development.

She confirmed that affordable housing for students was being considered for the Honeysuckle site.

How the university pays for new multimillion-dollar infrastructure is a sensitive area against the backdrop of 30 job losses announced last year and a federal government funding freeze announced last month.

Professor McMillen said the university, which listed a financial reserve of $446 million in its last annual report, would not sell land at Callaghan to pay for new buildings.

“Providing the financial investment is something the government has now thrown a challenge down to us in the most recent MYEFO [Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook].

“We have to careful about keeping a strong bottom line and a very sustainable institution.”

Tom Griffiths, the National Tertiary Education Union’s Newcastle branch president, said the university had been “deliberately extracting higher surpluses than the usual benchmark” to fund new buildings.  

Staff are told that the tens and hundreds of millions for buildings are magically unrelated to the normal operations of the university.

Tom Griffiths, NTEU branch president

“These have been achieved, in part, by a relentless cycle of restructures involving job losses, and increased reliance on contract and casual employment, alongside general budget restrictions on faculties,” he said.

“The result, which NTEU has been raising for several years, is an unprecedented level of work stress, work intensification, and generally low staff morale.

“Staff are publicly lauded for positive teaching and learning and research outcomes, rewarded with job cuts and budget constraints, and told that the tens and hundreds of millions for buildings are magically unrelated to the normal operations of the university.”

Associate Professor Griffiths said the union did not hold a particular view about the physical location of faculties but said NeW Space had generated some problems for staff and students who needed to move between campuses.

Detail of the NeW Space building.

Detail of the NeW Space building.

“NTEU also notes that this sort of physical separation of the so-called hard sciences and the social sciences seems to go against the overwhelming international move towards greater cross- or multi-disciplinary approach to knowledge, and to degrees.”

He said further expansion into the CBD reinforced the need to resolve issues around transport, parking and “extremely limited” affordable housing for students in the inner-city.

Staff feedback on NeW Space’s controversial open-plan offices had been “mixed and often polarised” and he hoped senior management would consult better with staff over future building designs.


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