Victoria University (VU) is set to fire teaching and support staff, and restructure their undergraduate programs in a shocking decision by the university’s council.
Around 115 staff are facing job losses, and others could be forced to accept pay reductions as the university attempts to implement a new course model. First-year bachelor students will be enrolled in a Certificate IV course along with their bachelor’s, and will now be taught at a new ‘first-year only’ college.
Promoted as an ‘Australian first’ and a novel way to stall the declining student retention rates at the university, the ‘First Year Model’ has been met with deep scepticism from staff and students facing an unsure future. There is concern that the changes will not only lead to job losses but also increased workloads and other attacks on working conditions at the new first-year college.
This news comes just weeks after the announcement that nine arts and education courses were to be discontinued, including three undergraduate and six postgraduate courses. Students were given only short notice about the changes and told they would need to seek alternative options.
Paul Adam, president of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) branch at VU protested the decision and pointed out that the university had only given a weeks’ notice. He said that “many students had turned down offers from elsewhere on the promise of VU courses to which they had applied”.
VU Vice-chancellor Peter Dawkins has pleaded that the financial viability of the university is in jeopardy, citing staff costs as unusually high, and claiming that the university relies more on revenue from student enrolments than other universities. However, sacking experienced staff will only lower the quality of education offered to students and encourage those who can to go elsewhere, while those who can’t are left in the lurch.
It is not just VU that has cut courses and sacked staff recently. There is a deeply concerning trend in Australian universities of cuts and job losses veiled as ‘restructures’ whilst university councils pursue a corporate model. This trend was initially kicked off by the regressive reforms of ALP minister John Dawkins in the 1980s that ended free tertiary education, and has continued unabated today.
For example, last year in a deplorable decision, the University of Sydney slashed the number of degrees offered from 122 to 20, and reduced the number of faculties from sixteen to six, following the so-called ‘Melbourne model’ introduced by Melbourne University.
The University of Newcastle is also planning a ‘restructure’ and to sack as many as 170 staff. And at the University of New South Wales around 400 jobs may go, these are but a few examples of this dangerous trend in higher education.
The NTEU and staff at VU are naturally and rightfully opposed to the cuts and have responded to them by urging people to sign a petition to the Vice-chancellor, and by organising a series of protests at VU council meetings. They are also engaging the public and students to build momentum behind their campaign to help win this dispute.
The NTEU and Friends of VU organised a community meeting in late April which over a hundred people attended. The meeting agreed to expand the campaign. The Electrical Trades Union (ETU) have also expressed their solidarity and pledged $10,000 to the campaign fund.
As we go to press, it has been reported that a number of staff at VU are considering taking the redundancy packages offered by management. At VU, and at all of the universities facing restructures, the NTEU should discourage people from this approach. These jobs need to be defended for future generations and to secure a quality education system. Instead the union should wage a nationwide campaign against job losses and against the corporate education model.
In conjunction with student and community groups, the union should oppose higher education cuts and demand increased government funding for the sector. The most effective way to put pressure on the government to deliver this would be a campaign of direct action.
Joint staff and student strikes and occupations should be considered the next step in the campaign to defend higher education. Actions at university open days in the coming months would also be an important opportunity to raise awareness about the impending attacks and build support for our cause.
By Dane Letcher