On Wednesday April 4, at 1pm, something special happened. Sydney University showed the country that students can still protest like they used to. Chants echoed across Eastern Avenue as hundreds of students marched, first to the quad and then in to the office of the Dean of Arts. The police were even called. Just like old times.
More important, however, was what they were rallying against. Huge numbers showed up on Eastern Avenue to speak out against the staff redundancies proposed by the Vice-Chancellor, Dr Michael Spence.
The ‘Stop The Cuts’ rally organised by the newly-formed Education Action Group (EAG) and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) drew from a large support base, inciting students of all faculties and backgrounds to march in solidarity for their teachers.
At its greatest, around up to 1300 students and staff showed up in support, according to the EAG. A large number continued in the march to the quad to send Dr. Spence a decisive message. It seems the message was lost on the Vice Chancellor, though, as the Provost and the VC himself were among University staff overseas at the time.
With megaphones and PA systems, the EAG and NTEU explained the situation to students in the simplest terms: why the cuts were happening, what they represented, and how they could protest these involuntary redundancies.
After filling almost a quarter of the quad with students speaking out against University stringency measures, Freya Bundey from the EAG made the call for the crowd to “occupy the Dean of Arts” for his complicity in the cuts.
In an action of questionable legality, around 40-50 students made it inside the faculty office itself. Interactions with administrative staff got heated, coming to a head when an EAG member fell off a desk she had mounted (in the face of a staff member’s strong objections). She was allegedly pulled by a staff member, causing her to fall, but these claims could not be verified.
A fire alarm sounded, seemingly in an attempt to evict the students, and police were called.
Professor Duncan Ivison, the Dean of Arts, faced the full force of the rally when he arrived to diffuse the situation. Initially flustered by the intrusion, Prof. Ivison later agreed to present his perspective to the group – on the proviso that the occupation remained peaceful and only lasted for an hour. The few police that had arrived eventually dispersed, having been allegedly called off by University staff.
Prof. Ivison took to the megaphone and addressed the gathered EAG members, in the face of sporadic interjections. He said the real problem is the cuts to universities by the Gillard government.
“Opposing the cuts just means displacing them somewhere else,” Prof. Ivison told the rally.
In face of calls for Prof. Ivison to join the protest against the VC himself, he responded: “I’ll support any motion that supports higher funding from the government.” But the Dean would not be drawn into support for the Stop the Cuts movement itself.
Prof. Ivison closed his address to the group by describing the issue as complex. It’s not a matter of buildings versus staff, he said, as the staff needs good buildings in which to function.
“The simple slogan of ‘Stop The Cuts’ is not good enough,” he said.
It seems that for the EAG and the NTEU, though, ‘Stop The Cuts’ encapsulates the university administration’s ideology of profit over education. At the outset of the rally, SRC President Phoebe Drake appealed to the emotions of displaced staff and disaffected students in her fervent speech: “I am appalled that a profit margin means more to this university than a student’s education,” an impassioned Ms Drake said.
“This is not what I signed up for,” she said. “We deserve better.”
NTEU Sydney University Branch President Michael Thomson cited facts showing university administration had their economics wrong: they anticipated a loss in funding that will not occur, he said.
In a well-reasoned speech prior to setting the rally in motion, Graham McCulloch, NTEU General Secretary announced that teachers at Sydney University will be free to engage in protected industrial action against unfair dismissal from June.
If the Vice Chancellor doesn’t pursue different means of cost-cutting before then, he may be facing a much larger administrative problem than student protests and office-occupations. He may find he is left with a university with no staff left to cut.
James O’Doherty is on Twitter: @jmodoh