In the biggest staff and student rally at the University of Sydney for years, 700 students and staff packed the university’s Main Quad on March 7 to protest management plans to axe 340 staff.
One hundred staff have already received redundancy notices unless they can “show cause” they should keep their jobs. A further 64 staff have been told they must ditch research projects and take up teaching-intensive roles or also face losing their jobs.
Despite the university having 1000 more students than last year, management also plans to cut 190 general staff positions.
“Sydney University is, fundamentally, the staff and the students,” said Damien Cahill, the university branch academic vice president of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). “Yet buildings are being put ahead of staff.”
Cahill told the rally: “The university is planning to spend $250 million next year on two buildings alone — the new obesity centre and the Abercrombie development — yet their staff cuts are about ‘saving’ just $35 million. To say that an institution with a $1 billion budget can’t find $35 million is ridiculous.”
A March 7 Sydney Morning Herald article titled “Fat budget for Sydney Uni research centre” said the planned obesity centre will cover “46,700 square metres, equal to a 30-storey office block, or similar to the Sydney Cricket Ground”.
When Cahill recalled how vice chancellor Michael Spence told ABC radio that the job cuts would be "good for staff morale", the crowd booed and cried “shame”. “Spence is completely out of touch with staff and students and the university as a whole,” Cahill said.
National president of the NTEU Jeannie Rae told the rally there was a “chronic underfunding of higher education”.
She said there was already too few staff. “We have classes now with 80 students, where the students are supposed to receive a ‘class participation’ mark. How are you supposed to participate in a class of 80?”
When Rae asked who at the rally were first year students, scores of hands shot up. The crowd cheered them for joining an education rally in the first week of university.
NTEU university branch president Michael Thompson told the rally that the union had taken university management to Fair Work Australia to contest the job cuts. He said management should immediately halt the sackings.
Referring to past management budget forecasts that had overestimated the university’s revenue, Thompson said: “They stuffed up the financials estimates. They got it wrong. And they want us to suffer. Spence wants us to teach more students, with less staff — it doesn’t compute.”
Staff campaign committee chair Alma Torlakovic told the rally: “When I saw the original video address with VC Spence saying he would be getting rid of staff who were not pulling their weight, I was excited. Surely he must be talking about himself and management."
Torlakovic said: “We can't fight this [campaign] as individuals — we need to fight collectively.”
NSW Greens MLC John Kaye said the Sydney University struggle was “a clash of visions”.
“On the one hand, the administration sees the institution as nothing more than a budget to be balanced. On the other hand, the staff and students see the institution for enriching education, gains not just for students, but for society as a whole.”
He said university management was “incompetent or lying” about its budget.
"If Spence didn’t know that, in the GFC, international student numbers would be down, then he must have been the only one in the country.”
To conclude the rally, Cahill put a motion that the staff and student mass meeting held the planned job cuts were unjustified, that the reasons were unsound and that the grounds for identifying staff to be cut were unfair (especially as they retroactively demand certain research "quotas"). The meeting voted unanimously that it had no confidence in Spence and called on university management to cancel the job cuts plan.
The crowd marched a short distance to the university front lawns where a large “stop the cuts” banner had been dropped from a nearby building.
[A campus forum about the cuts will be held on March 12 at 3:30pm at New Law 024, with Damien Cahill and Greens senator Lee Rhiannon. Staff and student groups against the cuts will meet on March 13 at 1pm to plan the next steps of the campaign.]