Ice Cream, Politics & Gossip Girl: Why Student Activism is Important

You hear a lot about the death of student activism these days.

Kids just aren’t getting into their rallies, protests, marches and speak-outs like they used to back in olden times. So goes the contemporary narrative on the engagement of today’s university students with the world around them.

It should come as a surprise to many then that the campaign at the University of Sydney against job cuts targeting hundreds of academics has involved thousands of students, with hundreds regularly turning up to rallies and marches that have held almost every week. Having participated in a number of the recent events was I surprised to see this “re-invigoration” of student life? Well, not really, because like most stereotypes about students, the one about us being disaffected, apolitical and lazy is, in my experience, entirely off the mark.

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The view I’ve developed of most students, having represented them for two years as the former President of the Student Representative Council at UNSW and currently as the President of the NSW State Branch of the National Union of Students, is that despite facing enormous financial pressures and being incredibly time-poor they still take an interest in what affects them politically and socially, both in a university, and broader, context.

In recent times, attacks by University administrations on the quality of education students receive (eg. cutting courses) and the job security and conditions of academics who teach them have provided students with the motivation to fight back.

At UNSW, student-staff ratios have almost doubled in the past 15 years and the bulk of growth in employment has been in the casuals and fixed-term employment. This means that staff who are doing permanent jobs like teaching and administration are being hired on a temporary basis giving the university “flexibility” to fire them when they want. The end result is a university workforce that doesn’t have the freedom to speak out and are so concerned about where their next pay-packet is coming from that their work suffers. All of this impacts negatively on students, who need a strong, secure teaching and research team to support them through their degrees.

The biggest rallies we had at UNSW last year were about this issue. The University administration had stood down staff without pay for taking industrial action to protest the increased casualisation of the workforce. Students came out in the hundreds to show support for some of their favourite academics. In the end the university backed down in the face of student pressure and re-instated the staff.

This takes us back to Sydney University. In late February, the Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence, announced plans to sack 360 staff. The University would identify which staff would be fired using a retrospective measure based on an arbitrary amount of research output in recent years. The legality of using a retrospective performance indicator is currently being tested in Fair Work Australia, the government tribunal that looks after industrial disputes.

In response to these unprecedented cuts, the students at Sydney University, organising through the Education Action Group, the Student Representative Council and left-wing political clubs on campus created a mass campaign of petitions and protests to fight against the moves that would lead to a decline in the quality of education at Sydney University.

The campaign is growing in size and is educating thousands of students and the broader community about the negatives of applying techniques of “market efficiency” onto public education. Students are optimistic that this grassroots campaign will push back against the university’s ongoing attempts to cut staff numbers, courses and departments at Sydney.

The campaigns at Sydney University and UNSW are being mirrored in campuses across Australia. Students are resisting the constant attacks on the quality of their education and the working conditions of the people who teach them. Student activism never died, it adapted to a new era and now it’s fighting back.

Osman Faruqi