Academic threatened with the sack

November 16, 2005

RMIT University academic Robert Austin is facing the sack for rescheduling classes on August 10 so that students could attend a protest against the government's "voluntary student unionism" (VSU) legislation.

Academic members of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) had been requested by RMIT branch president Jeanette Pierce to cancel classes and not penalise students for attending the rally. Affected students were consulted about the change and gave it almost unanimous support, and management raised no concerns at the time.

RMIT University has used an article by Andrew Bolt in the August 17 Herald Sun, which describes the rescheduling of classes as the "bullying side of persuasion", as evidence of Austin's supposed "lack of collegiality". Despite publicly opposing VSU, Vice-Chancellor Margaret Gardner has signed off on Austin's sacking, to take effect in six months.

The NTEU has launched an appeal against the sacking and against breaches of proper process. Victorian NTEU general secretary Matthew McGowan said, "If the university is moving to sack Austin because of an Andrew Bolt article, it indicates an extraordinary crisis in Australian tertiary education".

Universities are under increasing scrutiny and control by the federal government, and RMIT appears to be reacting to the pressure to be politically compliant. Instead of protecting university independence, including the concepts of academic, intellectual and political freedom to engage in public debate about current issues, RMIT management is making an example of Austin. A clear message is being sent to RMIT staff that engaging in trade union activity and openly expressing left-wing ideas will put their jobs at risk.

A campaign in support of Austin is underway, and messages of support are flooding in from RMIT staff and students, as well as academics and others from around Australia and overseas. Many of these can be read on the campaign website, .

In response to Bolt's criticisms of Austin and other RMIT staff, a debate has been organised by the School of Social Science and Planning between Bolt and RMIT's Professor Rob Watts. It is titled "Groupthink and the university left", and is on November 25, 12.30pm, in RMIT's Storey Hall, Swanston Street.

Please send messages of support for Austin to the RMIT vice-chancellor at , with a copy to and .

From Green Left Weekly, November 16, 2005.
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