On the same day the axe fell on academic jobs at Sydney University, students and staff hit the streets in a day of anger, and successfully blockaded a Senate meeting for several hours despite encountering severe police violence.
Six hundred students and staff rallied in front of the Quadrangle yesterday, then marched onto City Road and to a University Senate meeting, chanting, “one million, no way? No cuts, make him pay!” (in reference to Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence’s salary) and “they say cut back, we say fight back!”
The rally follows three months of demonstrations and direct actions by students and staff. The strength of the campaign has forced concessions out of the University and has already saved 54 academic jobs. Anthropology, English, History and Vet Science have all had big victories.
Of 100 proposed redundancies, 55 staff now face the axe. And of 64 demotions to teaching only positions, there will now be 55 demotions.
Students and staff came to the rally to build on these wins and demand that the remaining academic job cuts, as well as proposed general staff cuts, be scrapped.
The Education Action Group (EAG), who organised the action and won support from the campus National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), distributed placards reading “No More Attacks On Our Education: Time to STRIKE Back”, to agitate for a student strike as the next step in the campaign.
Spence’s boys in blue
Michael Spence and university management demonstrated their contempt for the wishes of students and staff by moving the location of the Senate meeting and inviting riot police onto campus. Shamefully, the riot police violently cracked down on an attempt by students to occupy the building where the meeting was supposed to be.
Police pulled students away from the doors of the building by the neck and hair and violently pushed many to the ground or dragged them away in wristlocks. Three were arrested, but not charged.
Spence pre-emptively justified this in an email to staff on the morning of the rally, warning of an “increased security and police presence in preparation for a demonstration”, declaring that the rally was the work of “outside agitators”.
But contrary to Spence’s fantasies, the anger of the student-staff body is very real—and this incident has only deepened it.
Students immediately responded by marching to the new location of the Senate meeting, chanting “no one in, no one out, shut the Senate down!” Around 100 students blockaded four different entrances to the building for three hours, successfully stopping many Senators from entering and preventing the meeting from going ahead until after later in the evening.
Cut back? Fight back!
Today, 62 students attended an open strategy meeting to discuss the possibility of organising a student strike as the next step. The meeting agreed to occupy a University building to use as an organising headquarters for the campaign.
In mid-April, students successfully organised for 250 students from eight lecture theatres to walk out of class and “siege” on the university management. And in a sign of the huge hatred for the cuts, 3935 students voted in a referendum on the cuts last week and 97 per cent voted against. Now students are planning to build on that by encouraging students to vote to cancel their classes.
The university management may have the power to hire and fire, backed up the brute force of the police, but they have lost their legitimacy among students and staff, who have both the democratic mandate and the power to disrupt the smooth functioning of the University.
Strike action in as many classes as possible, backed up by another mass demonstration, can send an unequivocal message that staff cuts will not be tolerated. It can help give confidence to staff to begin preparing for a campaign of industrial action.
Given that some staff have already accepted redundancies or teaching only positions and more will now be under pressure to do so, this is an urgent task. The cuts facing other campuses, such as the sackings at the Australian National University’s School of Music, and today’s federal budget that does nothing to reverse deep Howard-era university funding cuts, also underscore the importance of the strong campaign at Sydney University.
The movement has already shown that we can fight and win against neoliberal budget priorities—and it is certainly not over yet.
Erima Dall, education activist
Photos from the rally (courtesy of Sydney University Greens and Kimberley Low):
The police violence caught on camera: