UNSW students back staff in dispute

NTEU branch president at UNSW Susan Price addresses a student rally in support of uni staff on July 20. Photo: Pip Hinman

The University of New South Wales' management could face more student protests if it refuses to budge on key issues, the president of the Student Representative Council has told Green Left Weekly.

Osman Faruqi told GLW that management’s decision to stand down about 80 staff had been the catalyst for the largest student demonstration in years at UNSW.

The stand downs move came as the local National Tertiary Education Union branch imposed bans on the release of student results after management delayed bargaining over union demands for 16 months.

The SRC has been supporting the NTEU, particularly on issues that affect students and the quality of their education, such as student-staff ratios, better conditions for casuals and the regulation of fixed-term contracts.

However, it was the decision to stand down staff without pay that galvanised a lot of the student support, Faruqi said, including from "students who aren’t usually involved in student issues and who started contacting me and other members of the SRC and began organising their own Facebook groups".

Given the groundswell of support, the SRC decided on July 16 to hold a rally on July 20, the second day of semester. The call for a protest had an immediate impact.

“On the Friday afternoon, when [vice-chancellor] Fred [Hilmer] found out that the rally had been called, he was quite keen to see what he could do to take the heat out of the issue", Faruqi said.

“He asked why were students so keen to rally, and I told him, ‘The way you have treated their favourite lecturers has pissed off a lot of students and they want to show how much they support them’."

In an attempt “to defuse the situation,” Hilmer decided that Monday to reinstate staff. “He called me again and said, ‘I reinstated the staff, is the rally still going ahead?’ kind of implying that he thought it wouldn’t. I said to him, ‘Good on you for reinstating the staff, but they have missed out on two weeks' pay and students still want to show that they are backing the NTEU.

“So the rally is still definitely going ahead’."

The standing down of staff was the “tipping point” for student anger, but the rally also provided an opportunity to raise greater awareness about the broader issues at stake.

Of particular concern is the issue of fixed-term contracts. “We don’t want to have staff worrying about whether there contract is up for renewal instead of focusing on teaching, research and providing a quality education.”

Faruqi said even though students had been organising primarily around the stand downs and the rally, a lot of them had stayed in touch with the SRC and different groups that have sprung up in faculties.

“Ideally we won’t have to organise further rallies and the university will agree to staff rights and a quality education. But if it looks like the university is being recalcitrant in negotiations, then student pressure will continue to build.”