Protests Disrupt Sydney Uni


Here’s the scene: Activists are promising "a campaign of escalating civil disobedience" as rulers push through unpopular policies regardless of widespread opposition. Due process is notionally provided for in ostensibly democratic forums of governance, but important issues are never, somehow, put to a vote. "Representatives" are elected to the peak decision-making body but they turn out, somehow, not to be entirely representative.

An unreconstructed Arab regime? No — the University of Sydney, where Vice Chancellor Dr Michael Spence has cooked up a change plan that entails sacking a hundred academics, coercing another 60-odd into "teaching-focused roles" and either firing or not replacing nearly 200 administrative staff.

Thanks to Sydney Uni Greens.

The University’s Enterprise Agreement mandates a period of consultation, to which all but a handful of submissions roundly rejected the proposals. Spence has made arguments in its favour, but the attempt to carry them across the university community as a whole has failed.

The University Senate has a built-in majority of elected members: five voted for by staff, two by students and five by graduates. And it has responsibility, under the University of Sydney act of 1989, to oversee the Vice Chancellor’s performance. But it has not, for some reason, stepped in to call a halt as the destructive consequences of the changes — on the quality of service to students, staff morale and staff-management relations — become clear.

Thanks to Sydney Uni Greens.

Activists were left with no option but to disrupt the running of the University through direct action. A 1000-strong demonstration against the cuts yesterday culminated in a rally on the hallowed lawns inside Sydney’s famous sandstone quadrangle, and the occupation, by the student-led Education Action Group, of an office belonging to the Arts Faculty, which is to bear the brunt of the job cuts.

University managers were told by Fair Work Australia that the motions through which they have gone, in discharging their obligation to consult on the plan, were not good enough, so further discussions are now taking place within departments on their possible impact.

Thanks to Sydney Uni Greens.

Of particular concern has been the criterion employed to identify academics for dismissal. Last October, staff were sent a list of "research expectations" to be deemed "satisfactory" in their performance. The number of "outputs" required — just under one per year for a typical academic — was then abruptly raised, just a month later when the change plan came out, to four in three years, and applied retrospectively. Anyone whose output had not met this new target was immediately put on a hit list.

Thanks to Sydney Uni Greens.

Throwing an arbitrary cordon around a three-year chunk of an academic career has led to some extremely odd "targeting": among those facing dismissal have been some who had actually been given sabbaticals to work on forthcoming books, and even one or two who had just returned from maternity leave.

At least three jobs were saved in the Anthropology department, after petitions revealed opposition and alarm from across the academic world as well as the staff and students of the
university itself. The threat to their positions was lifted last week.

Thanks to Sydney Uni Greens.

Spence maintains that cuts are necessary because student fee income is growing at a slower rate than had been projected. But more students are arriving, and an already overstretched staff are struggling to cope. The student activists are right to be concerned about their own education, and those of students yet to come.

Thanks to Sydney Uni Greens.

Money is needed, management say, for building projects, including $30 million to be spent this year on producing plans — before a brick is laid — for the so-called "Abercrombie precinct", centred on a new swimming pool. Local residents in the suburb of Darlington are already up in arms because building, when it begins, will see trucks thundering past the front door of a childcare centre.

The overall impression is of unaccountable rulers, determined to ride roughshod over any opposition and circumvent due process and accountability. Ranged against them are determined
activists, with public opinion on their side, and the tools of social media in their hands. We all know how that turned out in the Arab regimes. How will it go at Sydney Uni? The next few months will be crucial, in a struggle the whole university world is watching.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.