All suggestions of an insipid and apathetic Sydney University political culture have been shot dead over recent weeks by an inspired campaign by staff and students to defeat Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence's plans to cut 340 university staff, and cut courses and the budget by a further $28 million.
Starting with a stunt at Orientation week, which disturbed Spence's opening address at the Great Hall, and a rally and march through the centre of the university, students have ensured that they've kept the pressure on Spence and his management cronies.
Near continuous “lecture bashes” — short announcements on the campaign before lectures — collecting petitions and bombarding the campus with posters has helped cut through the lies management has spun to justify its attacks on university staff and the quality of education.
Students are realising that the job and course cuts have little to do with improving the quality of education or “running out of money”, but are a systematic result of running the university on a neoliberal, corporate model that values profit-margins above education.
Australia is the only OECD country that has reduced tertiary funding in the past decade, and is currently lagging well behind Europe and the United States in terms of tertiary funding.
It is important that the Sydney University cuts are placed in the wider context of an Australian government that would rather waste millions of dollars fearmongering on the “threat” of refugees, or waging an unpopular and unwinnable war, than spend money ensuring quality education for its citizens.
The National Tertiary Education Union's Sydney vice-president, Damien Cahill, told a March 12 meeting that staff had already been receiving redundancy letters.
This adds a degree of urgency to the campaign and a need to get students organised and mobilised rapidly. Cahill said the organisation between staff and students has been the best he's experienced on campus, and that the level of resistance has taken management by surprise.
Cahill said the university's plans last year to get rid of the political economy department would have gone ahead were it not for the strong campaign.
He also stressed the importance of the battle at the university more broadly — if management is successful in cutting staff and moving to more casuals, it will give a green light to other universities to do the same.
At the same meeting, Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon said the administration at Macquarie University have already attempted to stop their Student Representative Council from meeting on campus, a warning that similar attacks may occur at other universities.
Students at Sydney University are realising that it is only through organisation and mobilisation, working with the staff campaign, that they can fight against these attacks. This lesson needs to echo with students across the country, who should start to organise and prepare themselves for a similar struggle.
Through this shared student struggle we can see the failures not just of treating universities as businesses, but of turning every part of society into a commodity to profit from — that is, the failures of capitalism, the system of the “1%”.
The Education Action Group has stalls on Eastern Avenue from Monday to Wednesday. The next rally will be on March 21 at lunchtime outside Fisher library. Come and join the fight.