Students at Sydney College of the Arts (SCA) have staged a two-day student strike against plans to close their campus at Callan Park. About 150 students and supporters rallied on the main campus. The group marched around in red bandanas and glittered masks, lecture-bashing classes to invite people to join them.
As part of the “day of disruption”, a gigantic banner was dropped from the Quadrangle building and piles of clay turned into a sculpture at the entrance. A tent city, complete with a DJ, was set up on the front lawns.
“This is the second strike, the first was a walkout from classes, to show that the student body is in protest at this current situation with SCA. We’re here to say you’re disrupting our education,” student Tim Heiderich told Solidarity.
“As long as we keep pressure up and keep our profile up, more of the movement’s demands are being met.”
A 120-strong student general assembly on 22 September, one-sixth of the SCA student body, voted to strike. Only two people voted against.
Activists organised to create picket lines directing students to a single entrance, and tried to convince them not to go to class. This was an important step forward from the first strike, when there were no real picket lines.
This strike was more polarising than the last—partly because students were under more pressure to finish assignments. A small minority of students (and one staff member) claimed that picketing and encouraging students to join the strike was “intimidating”. Others said that while they were happy for others to strike, they wanted the right to “choose” to go to class.
But this only weakens the campaign and undermines the democratic General Assembly vote. A campaign can only build if it holds everyone to account to the decisions made. It says everything that new Dean, Margaret Harris sent out an email saying she would ensure students had access to classes—when she is the one shutting down classes at SCA permanently!
The “day of disruption” clearly impacted the university. They had security guards trailing students around main campus all day, pulled down the giant banner and got police onto campus to evict the tent city.
And the occupation of administration offices at SCA continues, approaching a phenomenal 50 days.
The campaign has scored another two significant victories. In July students demanded Dean Colin Rhodes, who was spearheading the closure of SCA, step down. He has now resigned.
The new acting Dean, Margaret Harris, has gone on a charm offensive. But Harris has made it clear she accepts the plan to close Callan Park, claiming the cuts are, “what has got to happen”. SCA student Cecilia Castro told Solidarity, “She even said to us that she’s getting paid by Sydney Uni and she’s here to do a job.”
The closure of the Callan Park campus has also been delayed, after the university announced that its efforts to sack staff will take longer than planned, following a court challenge to the process by staff union, the NTEU. Classes will not move from Rozelle until the middle of next year at the earliest.
“They’re not ignoring us like they’re saying”, Cecilia said, “we’re putting pressure on them.”
But the university is still determined to move SCA to the main Sydney university campus, slash staff by 60 per cent and close jewellery, ceramics and glassmaking facilities. It has refused to reinstate enrolments for next year in the Bachelor of Visual Arts (BVA), Master of Fine Arts or PhD programs. This would drastically shrink student numbers and aid their efforts to gut the arts school.
It was a boost for the campaign that a number of staff members spoke at the General Assembly meeting.
Painting lecturer Mikala Dwyer gave her strong support to the student occupation, saying it had been a “powerful symbol” and that “without it we would not have reached so many ears”.
Matthys Gerber, a senior lecturer in painting, told students, “Artists need their fortresses and palaces… We are first and foremost an art school—and this is what we are protecting.”
Staff action is still a key issue. If staff took strike action to shut down classes, it would seriously escalate pressure on the university. The campaign is a long way from that. But even a concerted campaign by SCA staff, involving rallies and a collective decision not to take voluntary redundancies, would have a big impact.
Enterprise bargaining with the university begins early next year, which means the staff unions, the NTEU and CPSU, will be able to take lawful industrial action. This could help propel the fight to save SCA into the new year.The student campaign has an immense amount to be proud of. As Matthys told the students, “This campaign is art.”
By Erima Dall and James Supple