At National Tertiary Education Union meetings on February 23 and 24, Victoria University staff voted to take rolling strike action across all VU campuses.
The action consists of two 24-hour stoppages per week, for three weeks, starting on March 5 and 6. This level of strike action has not taken place in an Australian university before.
Last November, VU vice chancellor Liz Harman informed staff through the press that 270 jobs would be slashed. This is the largest number of layoffs proportionally in Australian university history. The response — immediate strike action, a unanimous union members' vote of no confidence in the vice chancellor and VU senior management, a major community campaign in support of access to tertiary education in the west of Melbourne and a major press campaign — slowed the pace of these job losses.
However, despite all attempts by the union to negotiate alternatives to guarantee job security, management has refused to consider these and has upped the ante with increased workloads and the rejection of proposals for the basis of the current enterprise bargain negotiations.
At the same time, senior management cut education courses and subjects offered by VU, decreasing students' choices. Two campuses will close at the end of 2009 and student numbers in tutorials have increased.
The 270 job cuts represent more than a quarter of the higher education teaching staff, which will further impact harshly on the quality of education for VU students. This will include:
•further increases in class sizes and staff-student ratios;
•fewer timetabled classes to fit in with students' work schedules outside university;
•less choice and less available subjects for students to choose from in structuring their degrees;
•fewer experienced lecturers and staff to deal with student problems;
•less student consultation time and
•longer queues and waiting times at student centres because of cuts to staffing.
For remaining staff the situation is grim. There will be increases in already heavy workloads and increasing stress levels. These will create a serious risk to the health, safety and morale of staff.
Harman claims this job vandalism is needed because VU's budget needs an injection of savings. Yet the facts deny this claim. The 2008 budget is in surplus of $17 million and has been "in the black" over recent years, according Harman's own emails.
The anticipated budget crisis is in the future, caused mainly by senior management's political choice of "bricks over people": spending on an ambitious unfunded capital works program at the expense of the university's primary function — the provision of quality core educational activities.
Dr James Doughney, the elected academic representative on VU council, has outlined four funding options which do prioritise "people over bricks". These options, individually or combined, could provide alternative funding options to the budget black hole prediction of $27 million claimed by Harman.
Already, additional funding is being proposed in the Bradley Report on higher education and the Rudd government's allocated funding to higher education, which substantially take into account the future deficit projection. These options have not been taken into consideration by VU's senior management.
Staff will meet in the week starting March 16 to review management's response and determine whether further action is necessary.