Sydney uni students ready for semester of dissent

University of Sydney students rally against cuts, May 7. Photo: Peter Boyle
August 3, 2012

As semester two begins at the University of Sydney, it’s worth reflecting on what student activists have learned so far in our campaigns this year.

We've learned that our university is being managed in line with the profits-first agenda of the 1% that run the government and the economy. We've learned that under Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence, corporate research partners and “good economic management” take priority over students, staff and society.

But importantly, we’ve also learned we can roll back attempts by university management to cut staff and courses. We've learned how we can fight back.

The university management first signalled there would be restructuring at the end of 2011. However, it announced a "budget black hole" in early 2012 due to lower-than-expected intake of international fee-paying students. Because of this black hole, management said it wanted to cut 120 "underperforming" academic staff and 190 general staff. It also threatened a $28 million cut to non-salary expenses.

Taking heart from the students rising up in Quebec and around the world, students at the University of Sydney began organising and mobilising to defend our staff, our academics, our courses and our quality of education.

Within the first week we organised a hundred-strong die-in outside the vice chancellor's office. Then in week two, 700 students and staff rallied outside Spence's office again. They passed a motion of no confidence in him and the whole university management. The motion and the demands of students fell on deaf ears, but we resolved to build our campaign.

The Education Action Group went all-out to mobilise for a rally in week five, bringing about 1500 people out. This rally was also supported by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). A key factor in the success of the campaign so far has been the unity in action between student-led Education Action Group and the Sydney University branch of the NTEU. The two groups have organised separate pickets, actions and meetings, but all key campaign actions have been supported by both.

We mobilised contingents of students from different faculties facing cuts. Many had never taken part in activism before. At the end of that rally, about 100 students occupied the Arts Administration building. We held a democratic assembly, the largest held all semester, resolving that we would take whatever action necessary to defeat the cuts.

The occupation lasted two hours, frustrating the Dean of Arts, who addressed the meeting. Despite proclaiming his support for student activism, he tried to get us to give up the occupation since the cuts are being driven by government funding.

Despite this, we resolved to put an ultimatum to the management, which we stuck to the doors of the VC's office when we finished the occupation. We resolved to launch a campaign of escalating mass direct action. Out of that first occupation we planned a student walk-out, a mass referendum and a rally taking to the streets in week 9.

Unsurprisingly, campus security knew we were coming this time. They prepared an over-the-top response. In week 7 we marched from the Main Quad lawns to the Provost's office, attempting another occupation. However, the doors were all well guarded and a few students who made their way in through a window were pushed back out through it by undercover police officers and private security workers. So instead, we "laid siege" to management, sitting in and blocking all access in or out of the vice chancellor's office for the rest of the day.

In week 8 we called a two-day referendum campaign on the cuts, which polled almost 4000 students and staff. It delivered a resounding 97% no vote. Hitting the campus for that week helped us to build the next rally on May 7. About 1000 people marched out on the streets and across to the Senate building. Although the meeting had been rescheduled and the building was empty, Spence had called in the riot police to defend it. When students tried to occupy the building, we were pushed, thrown around and dragged away from the doors. Three people were arrested.

Despite this, the protest kept going. We got word of the alternative Senate meeting venue and blockaded the building, preventing it from meeting for the whole day.

On the morning of May 7 university management announced that the total number of forced redundancies for academics was 23. This brought the total number of academics to be sacked down to 55 – half of what management had first put on the table.

Throughout the campaign, we've asserted that it is our university. But unfortunately, that’s a lesson our government hasn’t yet learnt.

So we’ve learned that, while we need to make each campus an organising space against attacks on our education, as students across Australia and the world we also need to take the fight to the government and demand free and good quality public education. We need to link up and unite our struggles to actually challenge the neoliberal model of education for profit.

So if you've worried about your education but never thought about being an activist – get informed, get involved. Because when we exercise our collective strength as students and young people, we are powerful.