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More than 130 students take on Sydney University for alleged breach of consumer law

The Vice-Chancellor has given assurances SCA students’ grievances will be taken seriously, but the SRC legal team is not ruling out pursuing the University in the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal, as Tom Joyner reports.

The number of Sydney College of the Arts students pursuing the University of Sydney over proposed changes to the Bachelor of Visual Arts degree has grown to more than 130, according to the solicitor managing the case.

The claims, managed by the SRC’s free legal service, allege the University misled already enrolled students who were unaware access to the Rozelle campus and its unique facilities, such as its ceramic kilns and an etching press, was not guaranteed beyond 2020.

A letter sent by McLoughlin to Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence on August 2, seen by Honi Soit, claims the University breached its legal responsibilities to students. Under sections 18 and 21 of the Australian Consumer Law, customers have legal rights protecting them from misleading business practices.

McLoughlin said he received a response from the Vice-Chancellor with the assurance that the students’ grievances would be taken seriously, however he did not rule out pursuing the University in the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT).

“If this matter goes to NCAT then there are procedures to legally require production of documents and to personally subpoena witnesses from senior management of Sydney University for cross-examination,” said McLoughlin. “To not mince words, I think it would be a marketing and public relations disaster for the University to go into litigation one by one with 130 students.”

McLoughlin said the number of student consumer claims against the University was growing steadily and had the potential to reach into the hundreds as the campaign gathered steam.

The University’s June 21 announcement of the closure of SCA and its Rozelle campus in favour of merging the school with UNSW to create a ‘centre for excellence’ faced significant opposition from students, staff, alumni, major University donors and the arts community, as well as state and federal MPs.

A sustained campaign saw the Vice-Chancellor backtrack on those plans late last month. In an email to students, he instead said the art school would be moved to the University’s Camperdown campus and merged with the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and the Bachelor of Visual Arts discontinued from 2017.

While there is no clear blueprint for how the school will integrate into the Camperdown campus, University Provost Stephen Garton told a gathering of SCA staff on June 29 the school would become “smaller” and “more streamlined” should the plans with UNSW not go ahead. He also foreshadowed with some certainty job losses among SCA staff. “Staffing levels are unsustainable and have to reduce under any scenario,” he told the gathering.

Sources close to management suggest the University is not taking any chances in its damage control efforts in the wake of student backlash. Honi understands self-proclaimed spin doctor Sue Cato, who is engaged ad hoc by the University as external consultant, has advised the Vice-Chancellor on his PR strategy following the fallout from the SCA announcement.

Representatives of the student-led ‘Let SCA Stay’ campaign have vowed to continuing fighting the changes. SRC Education Officer Dylan Griffiths said a protest was planned for the University’s August 27 Open Day.

“We need to lay the foundations for another strong year to make sure that students very much have what they signed up for. Also [we are] sending a very loud message to management that SCA is to stay where it is,” said Griffiths.

Independent legal advice sought by Honi suggested there were grounds to lodge consumer claims based on misleading representations by universities, particularly with tertiary institutions seen increasingly as businesses.

Pending a full inquiry into the future of the art school, SCA management will tender a list of demands to the University, according to a source close to the school’s administration.

These demands include a new mixed-media Bachelor of Visual Communications degree, combined degree programs with other faculties, dedicated marketing, recruitment and technical staff, twice annual 10-day exhibition periods for students, and building refurbishments at the Rozelle campus for the purpose of student accommodation.

A University spokesperson declined to comment on matters potentially before the tribunal.