Gillard’s savage uni cuts: build the fightback

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Labor’s outrageous new plan to rob universities of $2.8 billion dollars to fund the Gonski school reforms has hit a nerve.

Our education is already characterised by over-sized classes, over-worked academics and high numbers of casual staff with limited time for students.

The 2 per cent “efficiency dividend”—corporate speak for indiscriminate cuts of $900 million—will mean even more job losses, course cuts and other cost-cutting measures at every university around the country.

The decision to turn the Student Start-Up Scholarship, a $1025 twice yearly payment to students on Youth Allowance, into a loan to be repaid via HECS, is an attack on the most disadvantaged students. New students who receive that scholarship are going to be saddled with thousands of dollars more HECS debt.

Gillard's savage university cuts must be met with resistance

We are still dealing with the after effects of John Howard’s $1.7 billion cut to universities in 1996. Labor did not restore these cuts, instead deregulating course places. This meant boosting enrolment numbers without any substantial increase to the amount of money per student.

Universities have become increasingly reliant on corporate funding, creating skewed research priorities and managements obsessed with pouring money into marketing their image.

International students have become cash cows, charged exorbitant fees while robbed of rights to work and stay in Australia.

Now Labor’s cuts will go even deeper. And they are laying the basis for an Abbott government, who want to deregulate fees, meaning big hikes in HECS debts. Around the country, we need a fight against the cuts. The National Union of Students (NUS) and Education Action Groups around the country have kicked it off with snap rallies. Discussions are underway about calling a national demonstration of students and staff on May 14, the day of Labor’s budget.

Sydney Uni fight back

What happens at Sydney Uni will be key. Last year we waged a successful campaign against job cuts, saving half the jobs management was ready to axe. Now, our fight against a vicious attack by management on staff wages and conditions takes on a new importance.

University managements will be the agents of Gillard’s cuts at a local level. They run universities like corporations, desperate to extract the most from their “customers”—students—while offering cut price education in return.

True to form, Sydney Uni management are already using the cuts to justify their refusal to give staff a decent Enterprise Bargaining Agreement. If they get away with it, it will be easier for them to sack staff, cut courses and further casualise the workforce.

We have already had to battle attacks on Geosciences, Biology and Political Economy. Now Architecture has come under the knife, with cutbacks to scheduled student contact hours in Studio classes (after a promise from University management in December that this wouldn’t happen!) The University wants to close down the whole Education and Social Work department and merge it with the Arts department.

If we win the battle against one of the nastiest managements out there, we can inspire people around the country. The terrifically successful two-day strike by staff in late March (see column), has already shaken the management. After throwing everything they could at staff, including sending riot police onto campus, management are now adopting a more conciliatory attitude.

Students have built great support for the staff campaign. During the last strike, a “roaming picket” of 70 students entered lectures that were still being run and shut them down or turned them over to debate. Some students walked out of their lectures after learning how the attack on staff conditions would effect their education.

Police reacted violently, storming into one lecture hall and arresting five students without warning. A minority in the student campaign have been unwilling to defend the tactic. But the roaming picket has been denounced precisely because it was immensely successful in its aims. At least one of the lecturers whose classes we occupied emailed their students to explain he would be cancelling the class on the second day of the strike as a result of the protest. A student visit to all the staff pickets afterwards won rounds of applause for our efforts.

It was an example of how the student campaign can help encourage staff to keep up their resolve to fight and strike, and has laid the basis to take the fight to Labor.

If the staff strike again, we’ll need to be ready with student activity to back them up. We must take the argument about why the staff battle is a student battle, into more lecture theatres and take on management’s propaganda about greedy staff, a cash-strapped management (they are sitting on a $93 million cash surplus!) and “violent” and “disruptive” students.

We must also now link the issues together, building the campaign against Gillard and her local agent, Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence. We can show Gillard what an education revolution really looks like.

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