Activists challenge Sydney University’s corporate plans

Universities are big business and critical to the health of Australian capitalism.

University education added $140 billion to the Australian economy in 2014. According to Universities Australia, 1.3 million Australian and international students were enrolled in Australian universities in 2016.

Its Data Snapshot 2018 boasts university staff numbers of 120,000, but fails to mention that “more than half of teaching and research academics in Australian universities are employed on a casual basis”.

In more evidence that pedagogy takes second place to profit, selling education to international students is now Australia's third-largest export, just behind iron ore and coal. Almost 400,000 international students studied in Australia in 2016.

Geena, a postgraduate social work student at Sydney University, is paying $70,000 for a two-year course, seven months of which she will spend working in a “placement”. She will receive no pay to gain this “experience”. Adding insult to injury, she is forced to pay full fare to travel to work, as the NSW government only offers concession cards to domestic students.

At Sydney University, a prestigious sandstone institution, the Vice-Chancellor received a record salary of $1.4 million, while about one-third of the staff are employed in casual positions.

The neoliberal offensive has forced many mature-aged workers back to study, in an attempt to enhance their employability in an increasingly cutthroat job market. About 38% of Sydney University’s 52,000 students are studying postgraduate coursework or research courses.

Postgraduate students face a lack of affordable childcare facilities, a dearth of study spaces, high costs of photocopying, lack of supervision from overworked academic staff and a reduction in educational quality resulting from cuts to departments, faculties and staff.

These issues are felt acutely at Sydney University, where Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence is embarking on a Strategic Plan that involves slashing faculties — Sydney College of the Arts as one example — sacking staff and squashing satellite campuses into the overcrowded Camperdown campus.

Yet progressive staff and students are fighting back. Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association (SUPRA) is holding its Council election on April 26 and 27.

A progressive ticket, Postgrad Action for SUPRA, is campaigning against rape culture on campus, against staff and faculty cuts, for better study spaces and for international student concession cards.

For the 2017–18 term, SUPRA Council has been led by the pro-establishment Change-Impact faction. About one-third of the current council allies itself to the Postgrad Action ticket and stands against the corporate agenda of university management.

Nic Avery, a Postgrad Action candidate for council, told Green left Weekly the Change-Impact group “has been strengthening ties with management, for example inviting Jodie Austin, head of Student Services, to speak at SUPRA’s large Wine and Cheese gatherings.

“They have prioritised social events over running political campaigns and have stopped or reduced funding for Palestinian causes, anti-Adani actions and argued against funding anti-West Connex actions.”

SUPRA employs ten full-time staff and fluctuating numbers of casuals. However, the current SUPRA council, led by the 2017–18 presidents, has failed to consistently adhere to the staff-agreed enterprise bargaining agreement. This has negatively impacted staff members individually and collectively.

If the Postgrad Action ticket for SUPRA Council wins, they pledge to adhere to all elements of the SUPRA staff’s EBA and resistance to University management’s corporate agenda will be strengthened.

If you are a postgraduate student, join SUPRA and vote in the elections on April 26 and 27.

[Rachel Evans is the current SUPRA Education Office-bearer and a member of Postgrad Action.]