The campaign against staff cuts at Sydney University has ramped up following a defiant rally of 1500 students and staff on Wednesday April 4, followed by a student occupation.
Students and staff filled the University’s main thoroughfare, Eastern Avenue, loudly chanting, “staff and students say no cuts, no way, not tomorrow not today!”
It was the biggest rally at Sydney University since the campaign against the Howard government’s union-busting Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) legislation.
Afterwards, over 100 students occupied the Faculty of Arts, piling in the door chanting “no ifs, no buts, no education cuts!”
Students spilled out the sides and listened to the speeches and debates through open windows. The meeting unanimously voted for an ultimatum to the Vice-Chancellor that they taped to his door, demanding he back away from the cuts by Easter or face a “campaign of escalating direct action”.
The ultimatum concludes, “If you will not back down; nor will we. Ours is the democratic voice of the majority, and we will not cease in our actions until our demands are met.”
True to their word, activists are planning two upcoming rallies and direct actions as we go to press.
Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence, who makes a $1 million salary, has ignored 4000 signatures on a petition against the cuts and 70 lecture theatres passing motions against the cuts.
Despite a ruling by Fair Work Australia ordering the university to undertake more consultation, they are going full steam ahead with plans to inform staff of their redundancy by May 7, applying retrospective and arbitrary criteria to decide which academics will get the chop. Building projects, including a new swimming pool, are being prioritised ahead of investment in education.
Escalating the campaign by walking out of class, staging more demonstrations and holding occupations that disrupt the management and administrative centres of the university will be crucial for the student campaign. These actions will raise the political cost to the university administration in pursuing the cuts and make it harder for them to block their ears.
Combined with staff industrial action, it could be even more powerful. It’s welcome that the staff union, the NTEU (National Tertiary Education Union), is now discussing taking protected industrial action after their bargaining period begins in June, but the timeline for the cuts suggests action might be needed before then. The student protests are proof that staff action would be widely supported.
As Sydney University academic Jake Lynch wrote in New Matilda, “The new few months will be crucial, in a struggle the whole university world is watching.”
Who is responsible?
The April 4 occupation has already forced the management to answer to students and staff.
The Dean of Arts, Duncan Ivison, addressed the occupation. He argued the lack of federal funding for education was the main reason for the cuts and gave the “false impression”, as student activist Tattiana put it, “that his hands were tied”.
But like the Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence, university management and the Deans are part of the problem. They have been enthusiastic supporters of government policies like deregulation of course fees and enrolments and receive huge salaries for running the university like a corporation.
Rather than stand up to the Labor government or the Vice-Chancellor, when Faculty of Arts staff passed a unanimous motion against the cuts in a recent meeting, Duncan Ivison left the meeting and ignored all opposition—until students took command of his office.
Management wants to increase staff casualisation, push more staff into teaching only positions with worse pay and conditions and cut unprofitable courses.
Their priority is not quality of education, but about pushing staff as hard as possible and squeezing students for every possible dollar. They are the mouthpieces of the government on campus.
Labor has done nothing to restore Howard’s funding cuts to universities, and has deregulated enrolments. Like Sydney University, the Australian National University and Macquarie University are facing cuts for these reasons. It’s this neo-liberal, degree factory approach to education that the campaign at Sydney University is beginning to challenge.