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Students protest course and staff cuts at Sydney University

In a year that will likely see strike action on campus, 50 students gathered last Thursday outside Fisher Library for the Education Action Group’s (EAG) first protest of 2022.

Students demanded an end to course and job cuts, reaffirming the importance of free, fully funded education, as well as the importance of solidarity between students and staff. 

SRC President Lauren Lancaster was the first speaker, who quoted the Melbourne University National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) branch president in describing the staffing conditions on campuses as “the most diabolical” they have ever seen.

Alma Torlakovic, a member of the USyd NTEU Branch Committee and the NTEU National Committee, explained “management have used the pandemic as an excuse to push through the attacks they have wanted to push through for years”. 

Torlakovic claimed the imposition of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) has forced staff to “mark essays in eleven minutes and not spend more than seven minutes speaking to students on the phone in student services,” making it impossible to give students detailed feedback or useful advice. She outlined the impacts of the precarious employment conditions faced by university workers, which allow management to force casual staff to come to work despite being sick, as they do not have sick leave.

The USyd branch of the NTEU is currently in the process of negotiating a new enterprise bargaining agreement with the University. The key demands of the union are: an end to precarious employment; a pay increase that keeps up with the increasing costs of living; an end to KPIs; that the University employ more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, and address the toxic workplace culture that results in a high turnover of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees.

EAG Activist Andy Park then spoke to the recent sacking of beloved philosophy lecturer Sebastien Sequoiah Grayson — who taught the most-enrolled unit of any undergraduate course in 2021 —before being told his contract would not be renewed in 2022. 

NUS Education Officer Luc Velez then spoke on the importance of mass student activism and the detrimental effect of the transition to Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) in 2004.  

SRC Councillor Eddie Stephenson highlighted an EAG action from a few days prior, in which activists crashed USyd Vice Chancellor Mark Scott’s formal lunch while he was giving a speech on the “strategic direction of the university.” 

Stephenson discussed the futility of using official University channels to negotiate for change because they “will always answer first to their friends in industry.”

The tenor of the day was captured in the enthusiastic response to Torlakovic’s appeal to students for solidarity with striking staff across campus.

“I want to ask students, not just those here today but all students, to back us. To back your tutors, your lecturers, your admin staff…We are going to need student help. We are going to need you guys on the picket lines.”

The EBA between the University and NTEU is soon to be finalised.