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FASS casuals take stand against subject and job cuts

Casual staff berated Vice Chancellor Spence in an open meeting today.

The USyd Casuals Network called an open meeting today with Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence and FASS Dean Annamarie Jagose to discuss the University’s recovery strategy, with approximately 400 permanent and casual staff attending.

Casual staff in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) criticised the faculty’s approach of reducing casual employment and units of study in response to COVID-19-related financial pressures.

Robert Boncardo, a tutor in the School of Languages and Cultures and a representative of the USyd Casuals Network, stated that the proposed cuts were “unnecessary”, and would “have a devastating impact on people’s livelihoods, careers and students’ University experience.” 

“We believe we have to build a better University, and break with a model that currently relies on systematic wage theft [and] on the exploitation of international students,” he said.

In the meeting, Claire Parfitt, a PhD candidate in Political Economy, outlined various demands, including reinstating course offerings for Semester 2, lifting the University’s freeze on new staff appointments, restoring Research Training Program (RTP) stipends for Higher Degree by Research (HDR) students, and backpay for costs incurred in working online during Semester 1. 

Several alternatives to staff cuts were proposed. Tash Heenan, also a PhD candidate in Political Economy, argued for the University to cover revenue shortfalls through borrowing and other cost-saving measures, while retaining casual jobs in order to stimulate the broader economy.

“Staff shouldn’t pay for the crisis, but they also don’t need to,” Heenan said.

She pinpointed estimations that reducing casual employment in FASS would only save $3.1 million of the University’s total $470 million shortfall, without accounting for negative long-term consequences, such as lower enrolments due to fewer subject offerings for students. 

Toby Fitch, a creative writing lecturer, referred to the “double labour” of both marking and “fighting for our jobs and better working conditions”, arguing that pay cuts to senior managerial positions would cover the estimated savings from FASS casual cuts. 

Addressing Vice-Chancellor Spence and Professor Jagose, Fitch implored: “If you don’t … protect the workers who have been loyal to you for years, then you will be tearing up the very community you lead.”

Parfitt also noted that 82% of FASS casual staff undertook unpaid work in Semester 1, contending that “higher education is now a sector that depends on the unpaid labour of academic staff.” 

Finally, Briony Neilson, a lecturer in History, argued that slashing casual hours and abrogating precarious positions would shift workloads onto permanent staff. Speaking to permanent staff in attendance, Neilson said that “changes to our working conditions necessarily have an impact on yours. … All we’re asking is for you not to be bystanders.”

In response, Vice-Chancellor Spence heavily emphasised the “genuine financial precipice” facing the University if the drop in international student numbers continues into 2021 and reinforced the University’s focus on protecting permanent jobs. 

“If this is a one-off $470 million hit, we can probably survive it, but it’s not clear what the situation will be in first semester of next year.”

Spence also rejected suggestions that the University could liquidate assets or rely on “spare cash”, noting that budget lines such as research or philanthropic grants had to be used for specific purposes, and framed the claim that the University could easily borrow as “disingenuous”, in light of potential ongoing financial difficulties. Attendees called for access to the University’s financial modelling in response.

Professor Jagose praised the “high calibre” of casual staff, but lamented the “lack of trust” between management and academics. Noting that FASS suffered a 20% drop in enrolments and a 26% drop in revenue, Jagose defended the decision to “judiciously drop some units of study” as “a fairly moderate approach” which “shouldn’t be made synonymous with sacking casuals”, despite admitting that “there will be less casuals employed next semester.”

Jeffrey Khoo is a casual tutor in the School of Economics. 

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