The O’Farrell Government has vowed to plough ahead with plans to cut 1,800 jobs and $1.7 billion from the New South Wales (NSW) education budget. This is despite the NSW budget deficit – which the Liberal-Nationals originally used to justify the cuts – turning into a surplus, after the Auditor-General found massive accounting errors in the state’s finances.
That O’Farrell is continuing with his cuts further exposes his government’s real aims of opening up state-run sectors to private profiteers and further undermining union and workers’ rights.
The education cuts – which followed $3 billion in health cuts, some 15,000 job losses, the gutting of WorkCover, and caps on public wages and spending – will hit schools and TAFEs, as well as Department of Education workers. Australia already spends less than the OECD average on education, and now in NSW the education share of the state budget will decline from 28.4% in 1989-90 to 22.4%.
Following the vicious example of the Victorian and Queensland state governments, about half the cuts – over $800 million – will come from TAFEs. In that sector, about 800 jobs, including teaching positions, will be lost, fees will rise by at least 9.5% and the student concession fee will double. TAFE fine arts courses, including visual arts and ceramics, will be charged at commercial rates.
The TAFE sector will also be opened up to private corporations. This has led to disastrous results in quality in other states like Victoria, where almost half of all courses are now run for profit.
On top of this, another 600 jobs will be cut from the Department of Education and 400 from schools. The bulk of the cuts to schools are directed against public schools. After an intervention from Federal opposition leader Tony Abbott – who was quoted as saying that funding for independent and Catholic schools is “in our DNA” – an earlier proposal to cut some funding to private schools became a funding freeze.
This means a mere $116 million less will be spent over four years on private schools than originally planned while at the same time a much larger amount will be taken from public schools. Unbelievably, NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli said that “This is even-handed, this is fair.”
In response to the education cuts, announced in September, the NSW Teachers Federation organised a rally on Sunday November 18. It was attended by several thousand supporters in Sydney and other centres. While community-focussed rallies are an important stepping-stone in building a campaign to stop the cuts it is critical that the struggle be escalated.
The most effective way to pressure the government is through industrial action. Workers run the education sector, and if they stop work en mass can bring it to a standstill. That there have been no initiatives yet again highlights the weaknesses of the current batch of trade union leaders who are tied closely to the ALP.
When NSW fire-fighters went on strike in June last year, for example, it resulted in them being exempted from the regressive WorkCover changes all together. This is just a tiny glimpse of what is possible.
Unions in the education sector must work together and in a coalition with other public sector unions to develop a united program of action to beat back all the O’Farrell attacks. Such a program should build on the May 2012 teachers’ stop-work and the October half-day strike of public sector workers, both of which involved tens of thousands of workers.
As a first step the focus should be on building for a 24-hour public sector strike with mass protests in Sydney and other city centres. This would help link together all those who are facing cuts. With the strategy based on united and concerted industrial action, working people have the potential to stop the cuts to jobs and services and bring down the O’Farrell government.
By W. van Leeuwen