University of Sydney staff, students protest attacks on higher education

Photo: Markela Panegyres

University of Sydney staff and National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members held a small, socially distanced protest on October 13 against the federal government’s attacks on higher education and the university management’s austerity measures.

The rally also affirmed the democratic right to protest after a series of recent COVID-19-safe rallies on campus were aggressively shut down by NSW Police.

Police had initially denied approval for the action, however the NSW NTEU branch successfully challenged it in the NSW Supreme Court.

University workers are angry that the Coalition government’s Job Ready Graduates Bill passed the Senate on October 8. The bill will raise the cost of many university courses, while also cutting funding for students.

It specifically targets humanities subjects — set to double in cost — and promotes cost-incentives to persuade young people to select courses in fields deemed more “job-worthy” by government.

For many academic and professional university staff, this bill represents a significant turning point for the worse — even after years of neoliberal attacks on higher education.

About 40 NTEU members and staff attended the rally in Victoria Park in Camperdown. A small group of supportive students cheered from a distance. The speakers were Unions NSW representative Mark Morey, University of Sydney NTEU branch president Kurt Iveson and Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi.

As Iveson explained, the fight against the government’s reforms is only one aspect of the “fight on many fronts” for university workers. Shamefully, university management has used the COVID-19 crisis as cover to implement a range of austerity measures, which have already decimated a number of faculties.

These include cuts to courses and faculty, the sacking of casual and fixed-term staff and, most recently, an announcement of a round of voluntary redundancies.

Faruqi reiterated her takedown of the Job Ready bill, describing it as “cruel”, “shit” and nonsensical. She criticised the Scott Morrison Coalition government for its disregard for the value of education and stressed the need for university workers and union members to collectively fight the bill. She also outlined the Greens’ policy of free university and TAFE tuition for students and secure jobs for university workers.

Police stood at a distance at this rally.

However, the next day the police came back to campus in full force, harassing a group of academics from the University of Sydney Casuals Network, who were conducting a socially-distanced teach-out in solidarity with student protesters.

Police then brutally suppressed a larger student rally — held concurrently — that was organised by the Sydney University Action Group. Students and staff were met with police violence and intimidation, and law professor Simon Rice was pushed to the ground.

Iveson said on October 16 that the NTEU condemns the police action “in the strongest possible terms” and that while the union is “appalled” by the police violence on campus on October 15, it is “not as shocked as we might have been”.

This is because it was the fifth time in the past few months that the police had violently repressed staff and students “who have dared to stand up in defence of their jobs and education”.

Iveson said the police are using the “cover” of a public health order to “come in absurd numbers onto campus, intimidating staff and students, breaking up socially-distanced protests, handing out tens of thousands of dollars in fines and leaving many injured and traumatised”.

Describing the police violence on campus, Iveson said: “Without warning, police grabbed, dragged, tripped and pushed to the ground both staff and students alike, dislocating the wrist of one student and leaving many others battered and bruised.

“Professor Simon Rice, an expert in protest law, was arbitrarily detained while observing the protest and assaulted by police. Even the students’ clearly-marked legal observers were fined.”

Rice said in the October 15 Sydney Morning Herald that, while it is necessary for governments to take measures to protect public safety, “all use of state power must be consistent, proportional and suited to the purpose.

“What I saw failed this test.

“This intimidation of small protesting groups takes place while sporting and entertainment venues are allowed significantly more patrons. These police repressions are not based on concerns for health but are direct attacks against freedom of speech and the academic freedom to disseminate ideas.

“The University of Sydney NTEU condemns the police’s actions in the strongest possible terms”, Iveson said, adding that the union branch will organise more COVID-19- safe actions to “demonstrate our opposition to police repression of protest and to management’s job cuts agenda”.

NSW NTEU state secretary Michael Thomson has written to the NSW police commissioner and the police minister requesting the police end its intimidation and for the fines against students and staff who were exercising their democratic right to free speech be revoked.

The union is also writing to the Vice Chancellor, to request again that all correspondence between university management, campus protective services and the NSW Police be made public.

[Markela Panegyres is an NTEU member and a member of the USYD Casuals Network. This article was updated on October 19.]

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