The campaign to save Sydney College of the Arts (SCA) has shown students across the country how to fight an increasingly corporate university system that puts profit before students, staff and quality education.
In December, the university conceded that some classes would continue at SCA’s current location until the end of 2018, with no move planned for this year.
In mid-2016 the University of Sydney announced a plan to close SCA under the guise of a “merger” with the University of NSW College of Art and Design.
This would have spelled the end of the art school. SCA occupies a historic location in heritage buildings at Kirkbride in Rozelle. But in the words of Vice Chancellor Michael Spence the satellite campus was an “unnecessary expenditure”.
The campaign mobilised through mass meetings which built quickly into mass protests on the door-step of university management in Camperdown.
After a hundreds strong protest stormed the new $180 million business school to protest a University Senate meeting, the UNSW deal collapsed.
After the merger was scrapped the university wheeled out a new proposal to “move” SCA to Camperdown campus. The proposal included savage cuts in the course of the move. Sixty per cent of staff were to face the sack and the specialised jewellery, glass and ceramics studios were to be shut down.
The second proposal to smash SCA was met with an extraordinary wave of protest.
The Dean’s office and the entire upper floor of the SCA admin building were occupied for 65 days—the longest occupation in the history of Sydney Uni.
Mass actions built in the lead up to and during the occupation galvanised SCA students, staff, unions and the wider community around the cause. The barrage against management was relentless. There was a one-day SCA student strike and several demonstrations at the main campus, a vigil at the Art Gallery of NSW and a “day of disruption” at main campus during a 48-hour student strike.
The defiant struggle claimed victory after victory. The SCA Dean Colin Rhodes, who was the public face of the UNSW “merger”, was toppled and forced to resign.
The university was forced to delay its original plan by 12 months and their attempt to sack 60 per cent of staff has been severely dented.
Originally they wanted to make up to 15 full-time academic job cuts. The figure in the current proposal is half that. In addition the university has been forced to re-open the possibility of glass, ceramics and jewellery continuing in some limited form. These are real wins.
Still under threat
The heroic struggle and the important concessions that have been won show there is nothing inevitable about our universities being forced into a corporate mould. Resistance works.
But the art school is still under serious threat as the university pushes ahead with its plans. Staff continue to suffer. Between March and April a “spill and fill” process will begin.
If it goes ahead this process will eventually see virtually every staff member made redundant. Even those who continue to be employed will be cruelly forced to re-apply for their jobs.
Elsewhere at the university this has been a cover for cost cutting. Staff positions are cynically re-named and when staff re-apply they find their pay levels have been lowered.
In early February Sydney Uni released a “spill and fill” proposal for the Science Faculty that affects 90 jobs; many of the new positions are similar to the old ones but at lower pay.
These nasty corporate tactics must be fought every step of the way. Staff deserve respect.
Fight the corporate Uni
The fight to save SCA has shown struggle works and has set the bar for how to fight uni cuts across Sydney Uni and the country.
At Sydney Uni the attack on SCA is continuing amid a university-wide “restructure” announced in 2015. Faculty after faculty will face staff cuts, course cuts and mergers.
The agenda is to maximise profit at the expense of staff, students and quality education.
There are cuts across the board on other Australian campuses as well. In 2016, the Australian National University cut programs from its language school and the University of Western Australia announced 300 job cuts. This year started with 400 staff at the University of NSW facing redundancy. Everywhere there are cuts there needs to be a fight.
The marches, strikes and occupations to save SCA were part of a fight to stop one rotten decision by management, but they were also part of a fight against a rotten system that puts profits before people.
By Adam Adelpour