Battle to Save Sydney University's College of the Arts

Sydney University’s College of the Arts in Rozelle.

Sydney University's College of the Arts (SCA) is nestled in a section of Callan Park, Rozelle, overlooking the Parramatta River, with expansive grounds resplendent with hundred-year-old trees. The college has many buildings and spacious grounds. All undergraduate students receive a studio space.

Those waterfront grounds have long been eyed by developers as the perfect site for expensive apartments. The inner city Leichhardt Council — in a battle for survival against the Coalition state government's attempt to forcibly amalgamate it with two other councils — has fought off several attempts to sell off the grounds.

SCA staff and students have been on edge since November last year when The Sydney Morning Herald ran an article saying Sydney University would vacate the Callan Park campus, due to “financial sustainability issues”.

The reality is that the university has wads of cash. In the years 2009–2011 the University had operating surpluses of more than $250 million. If the university is skint why is Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence one of the highest-paid university administrators in Australia, on a cool $1.2 million? . In 2013 Sydney University had endowments worth $1.88 billion.

In any case, not much money is needed for SCA — an agreement between the state government and Sydney University means SCA pays no rent.

At a meeting in late May, Provost Stephen Garton announced to students, teachers and administration staff: “The university is in negotiations to merge the school with the UNSW Art Design and the National Art School in Darlinghurst, to create a Centre of Excellence.”

This month an email from university management told SCA students “we have taken the first step to amalgamating its fine arts faculty with UNSW”. Honi Soit noted the “two universities have signed a Heads of Agreement, a formal but non-binding commitment to proceed with merger negotiations”.

Sydney University released a Strategic Plan in April, where a range of amalgamations of departments and cuts to courses were proposed, following Melbourne University's model. The proposal for SCA to be amalgamated into main campus fits within this plan.

Both the Strategic Plan and the SCA merger have been condemned by the Sydney University branch of the National Tertiary Education Union and the Commonwealth Public Service Union. Leichhardt Council also passed a motion opposing the closure of SCA.

Students at SCA have set up two groups: Save College of the Arts and Save Sydney College of the Arts Resistance (SCAR). SCAR is producing an open letter calling on management to come clean about their plans and opposing any closure. They are calling on organisations and individuals to sign on.

SCAR coordinator Eila Vinwynn said: “This proposed move is about a land grab for the Callan Park real estate and nothing to do with improving art teaching.

“SCAR demands accountability for the apparent mismanagement of SCA, evidence of financial position, true status of this 'space tax' and answers to what is happening with the campus, what facilities will actually be provided to replace studios like glass, film and painting, not to mention the extensive printing studio we have?

“We want to know why facilities are being built at UNSW and no money is being put into our existing art school? If we have existing underutilised, under-maintained resources why weren't they upgraded to accommodate a merged art school on the current grounds?”

In 2012 Sydney University closed the Koorie Centre in a move condemned by Aboriginal, student and staff as assimilationist. A victory to keep SCA at Callan Park will show the corporatist Sydney University management that students and staff will not accept their profit-first, anti-educational dictates.

More than 200 people attended a meeting in the SCA auditorium to discuss the plan. The meeting decided unanimously to oppose the planned relocation and hold an action at the university's Senate meeting in the main campus on July 4.

To assist the campaign please get in contact with SCAR's Facebook page, sign onto their open letter and look out for further meetings and protest actions erupting to Save Sydney University's College of the Arts.

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