Wollongong forum debates university struggles

August 2, 2013
Students march during a strike at Sydney University in May. Photo: Peter Boyle.

A forum at the University of Wollongong on August 1 called "Trouble in the Edufactory: The Sydney Uni Strike and the Struggle for the University" heard from Sydney university PhD student and casual academic staff member Mark Gawne.

Gawne, a graduate of the University of Wollongong, described this year's series of strikes at Sydney as the product of years of dissatisfaction among staff and students over increasing cutbacks.

Beginning with campaigns against cuts to the library in 2011, students and staff have become increasingly organised in opposition to Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence's neoliberal agenda.

Struggle continued throughout last year in response to attempts by the administration to sack 150 academic staff and 190 general staff.

When enterprise bargaining negotiations began at the university this year, staff anger at the university's belligerence during the bargaining process and an ongoing sense of frustration, which Gawne referred to as the "submerged politics of work", resulted in the decision to strike.

Five days of strike action have taken place so far, during which picket lines were maintained at key entrances to the university's Camperdown campus.

The forum attracted current and former students, academic staff, retired staff, unionists and members of socialist organisations from Wollongong, Sydney and Canberra. Participants shared their different experiences of organising in the increasingly corporatised university sector.

One of the key issues raised was casualisation. The June issue of Connect, a publication of the National Tertiary Education Union and Council of Australian Postraduate Associations, said casual staff now carry 52% of the teaching load in Australian universities.

Contributors from the floor said casualisation undermines the potential for struggle within the university. It places individual workers in a precarious position regarding their future employment and makes it more difficult for them to develop ongoing relationships with one another.

The forum did not produce any easy answers to the problem of casualisation, but it did provide an opportunity for participants to develop the solidarity necessary to sustain the struggles within the “edufactory”.

Staff at the University of Sydney are set to go on strike again for 24-hours starting from 7am, on August 20. This strike will coincide with a planned national day of action against education cuts, which is being organised by student activists.

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