More than 200 people, including local residents, packed a community hall in Footscray on November 6 to protest vice-chancellor (VC) Liz Harman's announcement that 270 Victoria University (VU) staff will face the chop, most before Christmas.
These sackings, if they happen, will be the biggest ever proportional loss of staff in any Australian university.
Harman did not consult with the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) or the university's Resources Committee on future budgetary considerations, and announced the job cuts on the eve of a University Council meeting.
The university is not in financial trouble. Rather, it has budgeted for a healthy $20 million surplus over coming years. The plan would reduce by 25% the number of permanent staff including academic staff who, presumably, will be replaced with poorly resourced and over-worked casuals.
VU is a teaching-dependent university. Its funding comes largely from student fees and not, as is the case with the sandstone universities, from research grants and private donations.
According to the NTEU, VU has the sixth highest student-staff ratios and pays the 12th worst wages. Harman's claim that staff cuts are necessary to improve productivity are incorrect. They also cover up her real reason: to divert funds to property investments in what she euphemistically describes as "investment in the Western region".
A recent $8 million donation to the new Western Bulldogs' stadium is an example of senior management's priorities.
At two union meetings industrial action such as withholding grading, lodging individual disputes with the university en masse and taking strike action were unanimously endorsed.
On November 13, the Industrial Relations Commission approved an NTEU application for a ballot on the industrial action. The results will be known by December 1.One meeting of 350 staff supported an immediate walk-off of campus.
The November 6 meeting called for an immediate halt to the sackings and the 20% cut in courses. It overwhelmingly supported industrial action and called for a return to fully funded public education as well as the full repeal of the Work Choices laws, which are hampering staff from responding adequately to the VC's undemocratic actions.
It determined that no campus should be closed "until affected communities have had adequate time to review these decisions", and called on management to "consider a wider range of sustainable alternatives to the present course of action that trades buildings for core education services and jobs".
The meeting also demanded that the Rudd government improve education funding and repeal Work Choices in full. It also called on the VC to resign immediately.
Speakers referred to VU's long history in providing tertiary education options for students from the western suburbs. Still more students reported that VU was their only chance for university education.
One person summed up the mood at the meeting when they argued, "When our so-called leaders refuse to provide the funding to education that is necessary, then not only is it the right of staff take industrial action, it is their public responsibility".
The NTEU has called a public rally on November 20 and is applying through the courts for the right to take industrial action.
But with an intransigent VC and industrial action hampered, the only option left to prevent the job cuts is for the staff to break the Work Choices laws. Only united industrial action now will prevent management from buying off individuals later, and undermining the strong opposition to job cuts.
The support of students and local residents will be critical. As one student stated, "If the hands of staff are tied by Work Choices legislation, then students will be there to untie your hands".
[Lisa Farrance, a research student at Victoria University, is an activist in the National Tertiary Education Union. To get involved in the campaign, visit universitybargaining.com.au or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact email@example.com for information about the Friends of Victoria University campaign group.]