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‘Our interests are the same’: National Day of Action for free education unites staff and students

Protesters rallied to challenge the rhetoric of neoliberal education and assert the importance of student solidarity in mobilising staff strikes today.

Staff and students marched from Fisher Library to UTS this afternoon to oppose the corporatisation of universities, demanding free education and better working conditions for tertiary staff at universities. 

The rally was hosted by the National Union of Students (NUS) and supported by the USyd National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and the Sydney University Education Action Group (EAG). NUS Education Officer Luc Velez and USyd NTEU President Nick Riemer co-chaired the rally. 

Riemer discussed the significance of NTEU’s recent ballot to authorise industrial action at length. He criticised successive government attacks on unions’ ability to decide when and how to take strike action, including the WorkChoices Act (2005) created under the Howard government. 

“We have to go through an incredibly obstructive and time-consuming bureaucratic practice to ballot all of our members, not on our terms, but on terms established by the federal government with the precise intention of hampering the union’s ability to act collectively.” 

SRC Education Officer Lia Perkins spoke on behalf of USyd students, emphasising the need for student support with staff during the enterprise bargaining period. 

“It is staff who make the University run and have the most in common with students, not management. Students need to be energised and angry about the state of their education,” Perkins said. 

Dani Cotton, the Casuals representative on the USyd NTEU Branch Committee, expressed anger at casualisation in the workplace, noting that 74% of USyd workers are on an “insecure” contract. 

“We’re fighting for an all hours worked, all hours paid clause to put an end to wage theft,” Cotton said.

“I’ve been paid 13 minutes per assignment to mark. You cannot read, mark, and give meaningful feedback in 13 minutes, it’s impossible.” 

Cotton remarked on the success of Melbourne University to add the clause into their enterprise agreement, which led to casual staff winning $15 million in backpay. 

UNSW Education Activist Shovan Bhattarai spoke on class warfare in the education sector and the power of workers through collectivised action.

“We’re fighting on the same side as the public sector workers who’ve been out on strike in recent months. Thousands and thousands of teachers, train drivers, nurses. They’re resisting everything that capitalism has to offer in 2022,” Bhattarai said. 

USyd NTEU Branch Committee member Jennifer Huch-Hoogvliet spoke on the need for staff pay to reflect the cost of living and working in Sydney.

“The cost of living has skyrocketed. It is so expensive to live and afford petrol, food, your rent, and mortgage. What we really need in this enterprise bargaining agreement is a genuine pay increase above inflation,” she said. 

Jeremy Heathcote, an Indigenous man and USyd NTEU Branch Committee member, emphasised the 3% target for First Nations employment and called out management’s lack of action in engaging students and staff in a “First Nation agenda”. 

“We’ve lost a number of staff in the last two or three years due to cultural safety, staff not being recognised and having no voice in their areas,” Heathcote said.

UTS NTEU Member Tilly Fay described how crucial this bargaining period is as “the one time we can legally take protected action to stand up for ourselves.” 

Fay also condemned the Liberal government’s response to university funding, which had already been slashed prior to COVID: “They brought in the disastrous Job-ready Graduates Package making student fees more expensive for particular disciplines like arts and law, effectively drawing a line in the sand where your financial situation growing up determines what you can choose to go to university and study.” 

National President of the NTEU Dr Alison Barnes also denounced the Morrison Government’s cuts to higher education: “Morrison changed the rules to deny university workers access to JobKeeper. He cut funding to universities and doubled the costs of some degrees. 

“Morrison did not hold a hose; he held a petrol can to our sector.” 

Additionally, NSW Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi criticised the private interests of “short-sighted governments” and their influence on the higher education system. 

“Decades of neoliberalism has really destroyed the public focused mission of universities. It’s making them places which churn our job ready students and the focus on research is becoming more profit-maximising,” Faruqi said.

“There have been attacks on attacks on universities. Funding freezes, staff and international students left high and dry during the COVID pandemic where 40,0000 jobs were lost, and then of course political interference and the vetoing of ARC grant applications.” 

NSW NTEU Secretary Damien Cahill described the dire situation academics have been facing on the frontline of university struggle for years and a need for ongoing student solidarity with staff.

“We’re going to push back against the tide of insecure employment, against the tide of overwork, we’re going to win gender affirmation leave, we’re going to win sick pay for casuals,” Cahill said. 

Riemer closed the rally by asserting that students and staff have the same interests with one goal in mind, “the end to the corporate university and a restitution for free public, properly resourced education for the good of students, for the good of staff and for the good of society”.  

“We’re not going to rest until that is exactly what we get,” he said. 

Protesters concluded by chanting in front of UTS. 

“No cuts. No fees. No corporate universities!” 

The rally is contextualised by the ongoing bargaining process between NTEU members and management for a new Enterprise Agreement. Last night, NTEU members at USyd won the right to take protected industrial action with 93% endorsing a 24-hour strike. 

A forum hosted by the EAG and NTEU last Wednesday also discussed the importance of students supporting USyd staff strikes, calling for collective action and the power of a union. SRC President Lauren Lancaster argued that “students need to be on the picket line every step of the way”. 

The forum also raised mounting issues such as attacks on the 40/40/20 model, which determines how research, teaching and administration time is allocated, and the removal of caps on class sizes, which reinforces a high-school environment and facilitates rote learning.  

The NTEU will be voting on whether to hold a 24-hour or 48-hour strike tomorrow evening. Student attendees are encouraged to stand on the picket lines with staff on 11 May, and potentially 12 May.