One thousand five hundred students and staff marched down the University of Sydney’s Eastern Avenue on Wednesday 4 April in a defiant display of opposition to 340 proposed job cuts. Over 100 students then occupied the Faculty of Arts and delivered an ultimatum to the Vice Chancellor, demanding he back away from the cuts or face a “campaign of escalating direct action”.
University management is pushing ahead with job cuts announced in November last year, applying retrospective and arbitrary criteria to decide which academics get the chop and prioritising a swathe of building projects, including a new swimming pool, over investment in education.
After gathering outside the Carslaw Building to hear from speakers from the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and the Sydney University Student Representative Council (SRC), students and staff filled Eastern Avenue, loudly chanting, “staff and students say, no cuts, no way, not tomorrow, not today!” and “they say cut back, we say fight back!”
Another popular chant was “One million? No way, stop the cuts, make him pay”, in reference to the $1 million a year salary of University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence, the architect of the cuts.
It was the biggest rally at the University of Sydney since the campaign against the Howard government’s union-busting Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) legislation.
Students have spent the first month of semester building momentum in the campaign. Seventy lecture theatres full of students passed unanimous motions to oppose the cuts and activists collected 4000 signatures on a petition demanding the cuts are dropped.
But their demands have, so far, fallen on deaf ears—which is why students from the Education Action Group decided to take it up a notch after the rally, leading over 100 students in storming the office of the Dean of Arts’ and occupying the Faculty of Arts administration office. Students piled in the door, some spilling out the sides and listening to speeches through the open windows.
Students immediately held a mass meeting. They debated and discussed the next steps in the campaign, heard from students whose departments will suffer from the cuts, and about the inspiration of student strikes in Quebec and Spain.
Student activist Imogen said it was “absolutely inspirational to see such a massive display of passion and determination to stop these cuts” and that the “amazing, successful day … just goes to show how much power we, the staff and students of this university, can have!”
Although he didn’t deign to wait on the speaking list like every other speaker, the Dean of Arts, Duncan Ivison, addressed the occupation. He argued the lack of federal funding for education was the main reason for the cuts and gave the “false impression”, as student activist Tattiana put it, that “his hands were tied”.
But the Deans, university management and the Vice-Chancellor shoulder much of the blame for the cuts. They receive huge salaries as the payoff for running the university like a corporation. Many of them have been enthusiastic supporters of the government policies like the deregulation of course fees and enrolments. When Faculty of Arts staff passed a unanimous motion against the cuts in a recent meeting, Duncan Ivison walked out and ignored all opposition until students took command of his office.
The issues at stake at the University of Sydney are not as simple as just budget cuts—the administration has manufactured a budget crisis in order to increase staff casualisation, push more staff into teaching only positions with worse pay and conditions, and cut unprofitable courses. The priority of university management is not quality of education, but about pushing staff as hard as possible and squeezing students for every possible dollar.
(Photo courtesy of Sydney University Greens)
The occupation unanimously voted to present an ultimatum to the university management, putting the “Vice Chancellor and management on notice”, giving them until the end of the Easter break to withdraw the cuts. The ultimatum concludes, “If you will not back down; nor will we. Ours is the democratic voice of the majority, and we will not cease in our actions until our demands are met.”
Student activists are committed to organising an escalating, mass campaign, disrupting management and administrative centers of the university. Students have called for a “siege on the management” for Tuesday 24 April, and are prepared to demonstate, walk out of lecture theatres and stage ongoing occupations to win their demands.
This will raise the political cost to the university administration in pursuing the cuts and make it impossible for them to operate business-as-usual. Combined with staff industrial action, this kind of campaign has the potential to derail the Vice Chancellor’s plans and save the jobs.
As academic Jake Lynch writes in New Matilda, “The new few months will be crucial, in a struggle the whole university world is watching.”
When the Vice Chancellor returns from his current overseas trip, he will face an increasingly determined opposition to the cuts. Let the fight begin.
Solidarity, education activist
Tuesday 24 April (Week 7), 10am, meeting at the Clocktower in the University Quadrangle (the Quad).
The Education Action Group meets every Tuesday of classes at 1pm on the New Law Lawns (in front of the New Law Building).
Student activist Freya Bundey addresses the 1500-strong demonstration
The view from inside the occupation – “no ifs, no buts, no education cuts”
ULTIMATUM TO THE VICE-CHANCELLOR
We, students of the University of Sydney, are unequivocally opposed to the cuts and reject the justification given by the management. These cuts are an attack on the quality of our education and are based on what is profitable for the university, not on the interest of students. There should be no contest between staff and infrastructure. With record enrolments at nearly 50 000, the University should hire more staff. We are paying more and more, but we are not getting more. Only more debt.
Staff and students have shown an overwhelming display of opposition to these cuts: 350 staff submissions; 4000 plus student signatures; 2500 signatures delivered to the university senate; 60 plus lectures representing hundreds of students which have passed a motion opposing the cuts; a 700 strong staff-student rally in week one which voted no confidence in the VC; 200 staff members in an Arts faculty meeting which voted no confidence in the VC; protests at the Alumni dinner and the VCs Christmas dinner; protests at two Senate board meetings; student and staff speakouts at O-week; a 200 strong student speakout in week 3; an article published in the New Matilda personally authored by 28 academics; a letter published by the Anthropology department; opposition from the SRC, SUPRA, NUS, the NTEU, the CPSU and Unions NSW.
The campus has spoken, but this University continues to run in a dictatorial fashion. We students therefore have no choice but to issue the following ultimatum:
We, students of Sydney University, put the Vice Chancellor and management on notice. You are warned: you have until the end of the study break (15/04/2012) to publicly withdraw the cuts outlined in the Change Plan, or we commit to a campaign of escalating mass direct action targeting university management and administrative centers. We deserve and demand a quality education, but you have left us voiceless in the decisions that affect our education; so instead of words we will use the power of students to disrupt the smooth functioning of the university. If you will not back down; nor will we. Ours is the democratic voice of the majority, and we will not cease in our actions until our demands are met.
Drafted by the Education Action Group
Endorsed by student occupation of 100 students
Stuck to the Vice Chancellor’s door and to be delivered in person to him next week
Supported by the Student Representative Council (SRC)