Staff and students at James Cook University (JCU) in Townsville and Cairns have refused to accept course and job cuts proposed by the university’s management.
The highlight of the campaign was a 120-strong student-led rally on April 30 at the Cairns campus, the largest student protest action in more than a decade at JCU. Students also joined the community protests called by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) branch on April 27.
Media interest in the campaign has been relatively high, with the NTEU and student activists gaining attention and demanding their voices should be heard as they called for an alternative. At certain moments, management was clearly acting under pressure: for example, when it suddenly called a student forum to be held an hour before the April 30 rally.
Management are threatening to cut the jobs of 32 people, both academic and technical staff, which. Much of their workload would just be shifted onto other staff, who are already overburdened.
Unlike previous "restructuring" efforts in the past four years, this time the bosses have thought to target things the university shouldn’t be doing — like teaching. If their proposal goes ahead, the degree and much of the teaching in creative arts would go, as would two academics teaching geomorphology and other areas of earth sciences.
The smaller Cairns campus has received special attention. It would lose its psychology and sport and exercise science programs — even though both increased their student numbers last year, in contrast to the university as a whole — as well as the Master of Business Administration. The proportional impact of the cuts on the Cairns campus would be three times that for the university as a whole.
Several related technical jobs would be cut, along with staffing in student services and student evaluations. These cuts will make the university less educationally interesting and less helpful for students.
Given management’s purported rationale for cuts is financial difficulties created by falling student numbers, you have to ask why courses that enrolled 3.5% of the university’s students last year are under threat. That is more students than JCU lost last year.
In fact, costs and staffing are not the problem at JCU. Its pay level is among the lowest in the country and overall expenditure is not rising in real terms. Revenue is a problem —not just due to fewer students — because cutting staff means losing students and the related revenue, further compounding the problem.
The enterprise agreement won last year by the NTEU requires management to consult with staff about restructuring and redundancies. But the documentation management has put together for consultation is inadequate and does not provide the information needed for a staff member to seriously discuss what is being proposed.
The NTEU has taken the dispute to the so-called Fair Work Commission (FWC). However, it will face the same problem unions are encountering generally: the industrial relations rules are rigged and the FWC is not inclined to find against employers.
Staff and students recognise that management’s proposal is counter-productive to the university as an educational institution for their communities. This is not an unimportant point in regional cities which have had to fight to even have a university. Community members, particularly from other unions, have joined the protests against the cuts.
Campaigns against job cuts have always been hard to win. The legal system upholds management’s power and now bans industrial action in opposition. On our side we have not only the right arguments, but also the people power to challenge them, not just within the universities but also in the broader communities that need and can sustain public universities.