Academics, students and general staff in the tertiary education sector are facing a series of cutbacks, particularly in NSW. At Sydney University 160 academic and 200 general staffing jobs have been targeted for sackings. Another 150 jobs are set to be scrapped at Australian National University (ANU).
At the same time university managements have attacked student unions at Macquarie University and the University of Western Sydney. These latter attacks are related to the handing over of student money – previously under the control of elected student unions – to university management via the introduction the new Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF).
The connection between all these attacks is the profit system. Although universities are still publicly owned, they are increasingly run on ‘business models’, with encouragement from big business interests that dominate university boards. This corporatisation is intertwined with increased fees and the systematic de-funding of universities by both of the major parties.
The ALP, the Liberals, and the university administrations, have sought to undermine student unions first through ‘Voluntary Student Unionism’ (VSU) and then via the SSAF. In this way they are attempting to cut across any student resistance to the attacks.
The neoliberal ideology associated with such false phrases such as ‘competition’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘user-pays’ is the theoretical justification that underpins these socially backward steps.
Typifying this neoliberal direction, Sydney Uni Vice Chancellor Michael Spence announced in late 2011 that management would seek to slash academic jobs and salaries to save $63 million for buildings and infrastructure. This is despite the fact that the University was operating on a $116 million surplus, one of the highest in Australia!
The Vice Chancellor’s aim is to increase the workloads of university employees, and intimidate workers into accepting lower wages and greater managerial control over academic activities. Stephen Garton, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, even referred to cuts at ANU to justify the need for cuts at Sydney.
Students and staff however have been fighting back and this has temporarily forced management onto the back foot. The anti-cuts campaign at Sydney Uni has seen the biggest mobilisation of staff in years. More than 500 National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members attended the first meeting after the cuts announcement, and this was followed up by a rally of 1,500.
The university administration later shamefully called in the riot police to attack students who were protesting against the cuts. By early May, 110 academics had been given either redundancies or teaching-focused contracts with more forced into retirement. This was fewer than earlier proposed but still represents a blow. It does show however that the cuts can be fought back.
In order to stop the attacks on tertiary education it will be necessary to further step up the campaign. Academics and general staff need to fight against the job losses with industrial action. They should link up with students and work towards building for a day of action against all higher education cutbacks.
Students and staff have joint interests in opposing job cuts at a campus level. After all, every attack on working conditions translates into a reduction in the quality of education for students. At the same time students and staff should jointly campaign for legislative change to ensure that student unions are properly funded. Rather than the money collected through the SSAF being controlled by university management these funds should be democratically controlled by elected student unions.
A day of action which included a stop work and student walk out would signal a new phase in the campaign. This would help mobilise people against the cuts and be a push in the direction of fighting for an education sector that is run for ordinary people rather than the corporate elite.
By Wjard van Leeuwen