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Macquarie University suppressing opposition to job cuts

Record levels of staff and student opposition are boiling over at Macquarie University

Staff vote to unanimously oppose the new proposals. Credit: NTEU New South Wales

Students have occupied the University Chancellery, the NTEU voted to unanimously oppose a round of job cuts and hundreds took to Wally’s Walk this afternoon. 

It hasn’t been a typical few weeks at Macquarie University. Record-level student and staff dissatisfaction is threatening to spill over.

Momentum is gathering against the proposed dissolution of the Faculty of Human Sciences after campus security removed posters advertising a “No to Job Cuts” rally from student notice boards yesterday.

Four departments — Psychology, Linguistics, Educational Studies and Cognitive Science — will be redistributed to other faculties under new proposals which came with limited student or staff consultation.

“We are considering the changes to the faculty structures because we are operating in a challenging external environment,” said Vice-Chancellor Bruce Dowton in an email to affected students which hit inboxes during the final weeks of the semester.

University management has justified the restructure by pointing to budgeting needs worsened by an enrolment shortfall in 2020.

With more than 400 staff affected, many have called for greater financial transparency in the wake of a freeze on hiring and the renewal of fixed term contracts. 

In a video taken by Linguistics student Caitlin Callinan, campus security staff are seen taking down and ripping posters advertising a rally against the job cuts, mirroring the actions of university staff at UNSW and Sydney University earlier in the year.

“[The University] didn’t approve you putting posters on notice boards,” a member of campus security said to student activists. “If you want to put anything, you have to get approval.”

“My instructions were to remove the posters that you saw me remove.”

Campus security staff did not, however, remove any of the other posters on the student notice board.

“Macquarie University is committed to freedom of speech and the right of members of our community to protest in a safe and respectful manner,” said an official university spokesperson.

They declined to clarify whether university rules actually require all posters to be approved.

There has yet to be any change to the delivery of any units, courses, lectures or tutorials. But this has not stymied the sense of uncertainty facing students and more than 400 staff in the faculty.

“This is another disgusting attack on Macquarie University students and staff by this out of touch Vice-Chancellor,” said student Nick Haughain.

“Macquarie has one of the highest student-to-staff ratios in Australia and this move will cut staff jobs and force human sciences students into an already overcrowded sciences faculty.” 

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) branch at Macquarie University scrambled last week, with over 200 staff unanimously voting to oppose job cuts and further restructuring.

If the move goes ahead, there will be spill-over impacts including work intensification for staff across the University.

According to Acting NTEU Branch President Cathy Rytmeister, 60 professional staff at the faculty-level are on the chopping block. Of them, 90% are women.

The mood of staff in the Faculty is “bewildered, angry, sad and appalled,” said Rytmeister, “both staff and students were appalled with management’s instructions to security staff to pull down the posters advertising the rally.”

“It is suppression of political expression.”

The NTEU is mobilising against the proposals, with a petition demanding an all-staff town hall meeting with Vice-Chancellor Dowton attracting close to 1500 signatures and a rally taking place on Wally’s Walk today.

The University has also been put on notice that its decision to go ahead with several academic redundancies will be disputed under the enterprise bargaining agreement.

Macquarie University was a hotbed of radical student activism in the 1970s and 1980s with students fighting for queer rights and joining the Vietnam Moratorium movement.

But in recent years, that activism has waned on campus. The old Students’ Representative Assocation (MUSRA) was shut down by an alliance of the University and Young Liberals in 2013. And now, the University has a hand of influence in student organisations.

Two years ago, Macquarie’s student magazine, Grapeshot, was censored by the University when it attempted to publish articles critical of its response to sexual assault and harassment.

“One of the reasons I chose to study at Macquarie University was because I loved the concept of a Faculty of Human Sciences,” wrote one of the people who signed the near 1500-strong petition.

For now, the Faculty may not live to its 60th birthday in 2024.