Students occupy to save arts college

Issue 

After months of protests, mass meetings and failed talks with the University of Sydney administration, about a dozen Sydney College of the Arts (SCA) students started an occupation of the Dean's office at its Callan Park campus in Rozelle on August 22.

SCA students dropped a banner reading “Under new management” from an office window and barricaded the doors as staff left the building. Since then, supporters have been protesting twice daily outside the occupied building, sending food and supplies to the occupation via a basket pulled up by a rope.

The Let SCA Stay campaign is demanding that: the arts college stay at Callan Park; there be no staff cuts; the reinstatement of the Bachelor of Visual Arts (BVA) degree; and an independent review of the SCA's financial situation.

“We're in a crisis and we've had to take extreme action to get what we want,” Suzy Faiz, a fine arts masters student told Green Left Weekly on August 22.

To date, there has being minimal security presence and no police. The administration has turned off the student accessible WiFi, but no other moves have been made to remove or dissuade occupying students.

While earlier protests had pressured management to back down from its initial proposal to merge SCA with the University of NSW's Arts and Design School, it is refusing to reinstate the BVA or budge on its decision to move SCA to the main Camperdown campus.

Faiz said the occupation will continue, “until we get a proper response [from the university] and they meet some of our demands.”

She said it is very important to keep SCA at Callan Park as “The grounds are magical, but the facilities, the space, offers us a chance to grow and expand and create work, large work … A space to do research in and studio-based practice, which is what Sydney College of the Arts is all about.”

While every student at SCA has their own studio space, no similar studio, teaching and exhibition facilities exist on the Camperdown campus. Courses such as jewellery, ceramics and glass creation will be cut if the planned move goes ahead.

The University of Sydney — one of the wealthiest universities in the country with a vice chancellor that is paid at least $1.3 million a year — claims SCA is financial unviable.

Yet, the university pays no rent for SCA, as the state government gave it the land for its Callan Park campus in 1996 and paid for the refurbishment of the buildings.

Moreover, SCA students are paying $9 million worth of fees for 2016, while expenditure at SCA is estimated to be only $6.8 million a year.

Faiz said “we've all payed money to this university to get a certain degree and they have completely changed what we invested in.”

SCA students believe the university has manufactured a financial crisis to sell the Callan Park campus and sack staff. The campaign is calling for an independent review of SCA's financial situation.

The unanimous decision by SCA students to start the occupation at a general assembly on August 22 comes after months of campaigning and protests.

Faiz said SCA students decided “they would escalate if the demands of the students weren't met.”

A vibrant rally on August 17 drew hundreds of students and staff to a march through the Camperdown campus. The student-led protest had the support of the National Tertiary Education Union.

In July, SCA students and staff wore red capes and clapped "SOS, SCA" in time with a snare drum outside the Archibald prize ceremony at the Art Gallery of NSW. They were joined by numerous figures from the arts community such as former Archibald Prize winner Ben Quilty.

Community support for the occupation has being growing. The members of the Sydney branch of the Maritime Union of Australia visited the occupation on August 24, donated $1000 and commissioned a number of artworks from the occupying students.

Aboriginal activist Uncle Ken Canning spoke at one of the daily protests and lent his support to the occupation.

Student organisations around the country have circulated photos of themselves holding signs up in solidarity with the occupation.

Friends of Callan Park's Hall Greenland spoke in support of the occupation at the first solidarity protest. Many see the occupation as part of the struggle against Premier Mike Baird's agenda of corporatisation and attacks on public space in New South Wales.

Faiz said: “It's been really nice how this campaign has brought a lot of people together, while the university's plan is to divide and conquer — it has really strengthened us as a community … it's definitely shaken the art world up.”

[The campaign to save SCA is holding daily protests. Find out how to support the campaign at facebook.com/letscastay.]

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