UNIVERSITY of Newcastle students have labelled the institution's decision to discontinue its natural history illustration degree - the only program of its kind in the country - as a "great loss".
The February 24 start of semester will be the first time in more than 15 years the university doesn't take a new cohort into the undergraduate degree. Instead, illustration is being offered as one of four majors in the revamped bachelor of visual communication design.
President of the Natural History Illustration Club and third-year student Arlya Tuckey said she and her peers were "very sad" to see the demise of the degree, which was launched as the bachelor of illustration (natural history) in 2003.
"It's the only one in Australia and one of only a few in the world," Ms Tuckey said. "It's the only thing I can imagine myself doing."
She relocated from Darwin specifically for the degree and said other classmates had come from The Netherlands and Canada.
"We're the link between science and everything else. It's a way to visually narrate what scientists do, which is often a complicated thing and not easy to understand."
Ms Tuckey said studying illustration as a major would not be the same as building specialist skills in a stand-alone degree, so some students may have to complete additional study elsewhere. She said students were already noticing changes to the natural history illustration program, including a reduction in the number of directed electives offered.
Third-year student Dominic Lindus said the discontinuation marked the end of "the only dedicated art degree left at UON" and was "disheartening given what's happening in Australia right now and the climate and mass extinction of so many species of plants and animals".
A UON spokesperson said the decision to discontinue was made after a program review. The spokesperson said all current staff would be retained and two additional staff had been employed.
"The decision is in line with the School of Creative Industries' strategic vision to build future focused and industry relevant undergraduate programs with a strong emphasis on developing enterprising entrepreneurial graduates," head of school Professor Paul Egglestone said. "The school wants all our graduates to be able to take advantage of emerging technologies and the opportunities they offer to ensure they are well equipped to face the changing employment landscape."
Mr Lindus said students had demanded a meeting with Professor Egglestone late last year and he hadn't seemed to understand what they did, that they were already taking advantage of technology, or that they were studying the specific degree to work in the specific field.
"I felt a lot of the people in charge had antiquated notions that it was people painting pictures of flowers and irrelevant in the 21st century," Mr Lindus said. "We have expanded so much into the modern world, into scientific communication.
"I've gone from not owning a computer for 15 years to building my own so I can use very modern computer programs to do natural history illustration. It's the exact opposite of what many perceive."
Ms Tuckey said students integrated traditional art-making skills with technology and "do animation, 3D imaging and digital work all the time". But she said Professor Egglestone "didn't really understand why we stood out and why we were different from visual communication, that it doesn't have the same depth of understanding that natural history illustration does".
Mr Lindus said it became clear in the meeting "we're not as profitable as other areas in the School of Creative Industries".
"He kept talking about if you're doing it in a design context you'll be able to learn how to make children's storybooks,"he said.
"First, they might not represent animals in a more realistic way, but also, it was already being offered to us as a directed course. He didn't seem to understand what was being brought to us is already being offered to us and we're already doing it."
The UON spokesperson said the 94 students already enrolled in the undergraduate and honours programs would be able to complete their degrees. Students must complete honours by the end of 2022 and their undergraduate studies by the end of 2024. Ms Tuckey and Mr Lindus said this may prove difficult for students unable to study full time, but is better than the alternative.
"Originally they cancelled honours [in natural history illustration] altogether and said there would be no more intakes for undergraduate or honours," Ms Tuckey said. "We kicked up a fuss because we started with the expectation and a lot of people - including myself - have the intention of taking honours... we were able to get it reinstated [to 2022]."
The UON spokesperson said natural history illustration "will continue as a post graduate research area and we are exploring offering a post graduate degree (by coursework) in the future".
Mr Lindus said it may be offered through other forums too.
"There's lot of people dedicated to this in Newcastle who are looking into if we could start up a formal or informal school of natural history illustration not connected to the university - that's something we're all talking about as a group," he said. "We're all so dedicated to this and want to provide something."
Former program convener and senior lecturer Trevor Weekes has thrown his support behind a "cooperative" to promote student work and offer classes. He said he had fought to lift the intake from 25 to 31 but the program could take even more students, with more staff.
"They could have looked at it and said 'Maybe we're not making profits like some other areas but this is unique'," he said. "It's disappointing that the universities are all just following each other."
Program convener and lecturer Dr Prue Sailer said the discontinuation was "disappointing" for students who had wanted to study the "boutique" course, which usually takes between 35 and 38 students per year, but she could understand merging with a "larger degree that gives students the opportunity to do a broad range of subjects".
It's the only one in Australia and one of only a few in the world.Arlya Tucker
"I can appreciate difficult decisions have to be made for the efficient running and profitable running of the university," she said, adding that students had "punched above their weight" in the field.
"It comes down to the passion of students and their love of creating artwork and their love for the natural world and combining those two things."
Dr Sailer said she was "optimistic for the future" and believed any future post-graduate course would be "world class as well".
"We'll produce equally impressive outcomes in terms of student work."
Ms Tuckey and Mr Lindus said if UON ever revived natural history illustration as an undergraduate program, it should be tied to the Faculty of Science and not the School of Creative Industries.
A spokesperson for Newcastle University Students Association said it was investigating the changes to the degree.
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