With university education under attack through course cuts and sackings, last year’s campaign against cuts at Sydney Uni showed how to fight for our education—and win. 

Last year was a disastrous year for higher education, with cuts to staff and courses in most major universities across Australia. At Sydney Uni, students returning from holidays were greeted with the announcement that the University would be cutting 340 staff—half academics and half in general administrative positions. The consultation period, we were told, would be over by the time classes started for the semester. Most of the redundancies had already been approved by management.

This decision to sack the equivalent of 7.5 per cent of the university’s staff was done with no consultation with students, minimal contact with staff, and deliberately timed over the holiday break to minimise dissent.

What was even more absurd was the decision came at a time when Sydney Uni was making the third largest university surplus in Australia; announcing million-dollar investments in a new swimming pool, a new business college and the Charles Perkins Diabetes Research Centre. Why was the University cutting staff while continuing to make a fortune? Why cut staff when student numbers were increasing by thousands every year?

Corporate mind set

Our universities are now run like corporations, with management less concerned about students’ education than with financial targets and scaling the giddy heights of the University ranking system. Millions are splurged on superficial PR drives, fancy buildings and advertisements to attract more students. They see education as just another market, and one of Australia’s leading exports, as universities compete with each other to attract fee-paying international students.

This translates into larger tutorials, more academics pushed onto casualised teaching-only roles, and cuts to courses deemed “unprofitable” for not attracting enough students. The criteria management at Sydney Uni used to decide which staff should be cut—based on the number of research publications in the previous three years—is evidence of a management obsessed with quantifying education into figures and data rather than valuing the quality of academics’ work.

This is happening across the country, with cuts at other universities last year including Australian National University, La Trobe and recently University of Western Sydney.

The campaign against job cuts at Sydney Uni shows how we can fight and win

Despite promises of an Education Revolution, higher education remains underfunded under Federal Labor, despite their own Bradley review calling for a 10 per cent increase in base funding. This gap in federal funding has opened the door for a clique of tight-fisted managers whose job is only to get as many students in, and as many students out, as possible—running universities like degree factories.

Fight back

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Though cuts have been announced at other universities, Sydney has had the most success fighting against the cuts. This is due to the efforts of activists on campus to pull students together into a campaign prepared to take the fight directly to management.

Such a campaign must go beyond symbolic discontent and recognise that management will only start to back down when it is beginning to affect them directly.

Thus in first semester last year the Education Action Group engaged in a series of vocal and disruptive protests, ranging from organising seven lecture halls to walk out; blockading and shutting down a Senate meeting of University management; passing motions in lecture halls that encouraged students to stand up and be heard; and pulling together a mass rally of 1500 staff and students, the largest campus rally since John Howard left office.

At this rally we convinced students of the need to take further action and occupied the Deans of Arts office for the entire afternoon, the only time anyone from management would ever have the guts to talk to students directly about their decisions. With this tremendous fight back we achieved a sizeable victory, saving 47 out of 100 academic jobs that face being cut.

For students at Sydney Uni this semester there’s still plenty of work to be done. Cuts are still hanging over general staff and there are rumours of cuts to Architecture, Education, Social Work and Medieval Studies.

What last year showed was that students can stop these cuts, but only if we’re organised and united. It showed was that unless we challenge the neo-liberal logic behind the running of universities, these cuts will only keep reappearing elsewhere. Finally, what last year showed was that students are not all apathetic, but capable of working with staff members to fight for a better university.

Danny Hardiman

Join the Education Action Group:

phone Danny on 0429 960 521

Join Solidarity at Sydney Uni:

phone Erima on 0432 221 516

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