In December 2018, Bangor University announced their intentions to close their chemistry department by 2021. Staff and students in the department erupted and the university was soon host to a vigorous student campaign to halt the closure; at one point the then-Vice-Chancellor had to be escorted past a protest by security. But in April 2019, the hammer finally fell, the decision was finalised, and the campaigns quietly faded away. But was has it been like to work and study in the closing department since then?

“The analogy is like a terminally ill patient in palliative care.” — Keith Hughes, Senior Lecturer

James Hutchinson was in his first year of studies when the announcement came; a year and 8 months on, he’s in his third year, and now serves as a student representative for chemistry. According to him, there were around 100 students in the department before the announcement. Now- with the department no longer accepting new students, many graduating, and a few choosing to leave for greener pastures- there are just 25.

“Honestly, it’s low morale constantly. Because over the past two years we’ve never known if people are going to be here next semester- or next week. We get told through the grapevine usually” said Hutchinson of the experience.

Keith Hughes, a senior lecturer in the department, echoed his sentiment, describing the department as “a terminally ill patient in palliative care.”

Hughes continued: “The downside is, we have no future at the university, we play no role in the future of the university.

“There’s no point in doing research unless we want to still do research, but it’s not going to help the university in any way. We have no say in any policy in the university. And yeah, it’s just sad that way, really- all we’re doing is just teaching out and doing the best possible for the students.”

Every chemistry student who contributed to this article took the time to clarify that their criticisms were of the university management, not the Chemistry staff, and Hutchinson went on to express surprise at the array of choices the department has managed to offer despite the cuts.

And the cuts have been severe, with the department operating at 25% of its normal budget. The department has lost multiple floors of their building, and the number of staff has halved from 16-18 in the 2018/19 year, to only 8. While students have said they have not felt the budget affect their day-to-day necessities, such as needed chemicals, they had seen some equipment sold, and hesitance from the university to replace things.

“We’re on the back bench now.” — Alexandra Thomas, Chair of Bangor Chem Soc

“Despite the fact that some of us are maybe on reduced contracts, we’re working harder now than I think we were before the department was touted for closing,” said Patrick Murphy, known to his students as Paddy, a reader in inorganic chemistry.

Martina Lahmann, another senior lecturer, expressed the difficulty she faced moving her lab to a different floor, but added that she was grateful it was open at all, considering the pandemic. Every member of the chemistry staff had a story about the complications caused by the pandemic. All commented on the difficulty of getting feedback and adapting learning materials to the online format.

“Then, with the reduced staff, I think that was a bit tough. It was really tough because I had to do completely new courses, and then suddenly move them over to blended learning. It’s like double work,” said Lahmann.

John Prabhakar described the stress on students: “I’ve only been able to talk to a small cohort of them face-to-face, because they are my project students and I see them in the lab, and I live in Bangor so I see some others on the street and stop for a quick chat to see if they’re ok. I can see- they do feel the pressure.”

The Chair of Bangor Chem Soc, Alexandra Thomas, expressed gratitude for their efforts, but feels they’ve been dealt an unwinnable hand: “It’s been interesting because we’ve lost many staff on the way, most of which… obviously they’re specialists in their field, so their area of teaching has had to be taught by someone who has dabbled in that area, but doesn’t know as much…

“Obviously our staff are trying, and we’re thankful for that, but we feel like we’re not getting the best from our degree.”

Lucy Fitzgerald, another student representative, agrees: “We were promised quality, and that the quality would continue, but it hasn’t.

“Not at fault of the staff, I want to say. The staff, our lecturers, are amazing, they’ve been amazing. It’s not them, it is just the main university.”

Fitzgerald is currently debating whether it’s worth staying on for a master’s degree next year, while Hutchinson, alongside many others, have dropped theirs or plan to move to a different university. However, she gave high praise to the Student’s Union for the support they have provided students in the department, especially when support from the university feels to be at an all time low for many.

“I don’t know if they’re supposed to tell us or not, but we aren’t being told.” — Lucy Fitzgerald, Student Representative

“We’re on the back bench now,” said Alexandra Thomas, describing incidents of the university declining to replace broken equipment.

“We’re trying to speak our side of things, and make them hear our voice, because we’re still here at this moment in time, and we still need the best support we can get, as other courses. But it’s hard trying to get any sort of resources because of the fact that ‘what’s the point’, we’re only here for another year, maybe two.

“Our chem building is getting cut off, bit by bit- there’s floors that we can’t use anymore, because they’re not a part of chemistry anymore. It’s just slowly going, and it’s nearing the end now.”

Poor communication was the core issue for the student representatives, Hutchinson and Fitzgerald: “Every so often it does seem, in my opinion, like the uni is trying to cut more without us noticing. But it’s really hard to put a finger on what they have cut and what they haven’t” said Hutchinson.

“I don’t know if they’re supposed to tell us or not, but we aren’t being told,” said Fitzgerald.

Whether the department will be able to function in the next academic year remains to be seen, as students and staff express concern about the number of students expected to remain. Meanwhile the university is currently being wracked by another budget crisis, this time for ~£13m, although they’ve promised not to close another department.

When asked whether she felt that those graduating in 2021 would have as valuable a degree as those that graduated in 2019, as the university promised, Alexandra Thomas echoed the sentiments of her professors: hopeful and determined, though not confident. Hutchinson and Fitzgerald had shorter answers. Two noes.


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