Next Wednesday our staff will strike again – students can make it count.
By Toby Walmsley
August 1st will mark the second time this year that UNSW staff have walked off the job to go on strike. Staff go on strike when negotiations with the university management over their pay and conditions reaches a standstill. From this description you might be misled to believe that staff are striking for a better paycheck and and a longer lunch break. The reality is far more critical – their fight is about their dignity, and about who controls the university.
Let me just elucidate who – and what – our staff are up against. For the last four years, a small carbre of administrators in the university management have believed that they call the shots. That’s why they spent $25 million on PriceWaterhouseCoopers consultants to develop their 2025 plan instead of tapping into the expertise of their staff, why they have refused to release scathing critiques from students about their trimesters plans, why they have ignored 78% of students who want the university to divest from fossil fuels, and why they have built a multi-million dollar cliff side retreat for them and their business partners nearby in Coogee. This follows the inauguration of our Vice-Chancellor, Ian Jacobs, in 2015, who has overseen the concentration of power in the hands of fewer and fewer administrations in the upper management.
Two years ago Harry Holbrook, in an article titled Ushering in the Jacobs Era, expressed Jacobs’ mode of operation more succinctly than I could:
“Ian Jacobs remains wholly committed to a corporatised UNSW that churns students out for profit, whilst protecting its own reputation, failing to commit to the safety of students on campus or addressing the significant social changes that we face.”
As you can see from above, and likely your own experiences, his prediction has remained true. The consequence of Jacobs’ concentration of power has been that UNSW has prioritised the role of profit and corporatisation over teaching, researching, and learning conditions. It has led to UNSW to being less of a public institution, and more of a student conveyor belt with a fancy think tank in the lobby.
This corporatisation has touched every corner of the university, despite its attempts to conceal itself as a series of unrelated changes. But the relentless drive towards trimesters is not a coincidence. Two hundred and thirty staff cuts are not a coincidence. This new threat of pay cuts and diminished working conditions for staff is not a coincidence either. It’s a deliberate policy by a small group of decision makers in the university management to increase student intake and reduce staff overheads, whilst minimizing (not preventing) the damage to our quality of education. It’s the consequences of an approach to education that prioritizes less the genuine quality of learning and research at an institution, but instead its bottom lines and university rankings.
Staff (that is, those who have not been fired or left for greener pastures) have been at the pointy end of these changes. As the demands of the university have grown greater and greater, they have worked harder and harder, often being pushed into casual roles, or being ‘restructured’ into jobs below their pay grade. These changes, which have shaken the university and against which staff had little recourse, have now been followed by the proposal of wage and condition cuts. Such a proposal from the university administration shows how little respect they have for our staff after such a period of tumultuous change.
After four years of changes that are not in their interest, staff are now showing their teeth to the university, and contesting the legitimacy of the management cadre that has undervalued them for too long. That’s why this fight is fundamentally about dignity and who runs the university. This strike represents far more than a dispute over pay, but a dispute over the management of this university over the last four years. And, given that quality staff are vital to keep the wheels turning at UNSW, this fight has the potential to turn the tide of change at UNSW.
The staff, however, cannot win this fight alone. Without students and staff, UNSW is only brick and mortar. The desire for profit and rankings by the university management is a double edged sword – when students and staff organise, and seriously threaten the university’s ability to function corperatly, the administration loses its power. The administration works hard to make you feel powerless, precisely because you are so powerful. There is no better way to use that power than collectively with students and staff to fight for a fairer university. The upcoming strike gives us just that opportunity.
In addition to fighting the reckless corporatisation of our university and expressing your frustrations over UNSW’s bait-and-switch during the course of your degree, I want to give you two other good reasons why you should support staff on strike on next Wednesday 1st of August.
Firstly, it’s in your interest to do so. Staff being paid less and being given less chance to work with students would be bad in any case. But going into trimesters, it will be atrocious. Going to university as usual on August 1st implies that staff cuts, trimesters, and a pursuit of profit over quality education, is acceptable to the student body. If you want to preserve your quality of education, you should rationally support the collective action of staff intended to do just that.
A far more compelling reason to support the strike, in my opinion, has formed the basis of this article – that it’s the just thing to do. University staff (and workers everywhere) have a right to say how their workplace should be run, and should be enabled through their working conditions to complete their work safely and properly. Injustice enables injustice; giving injustice a free pass somewhere gives it a free pass anywhere. This is even more critical when the injustice is in our own community. And as a student community, our voice should be heard, and our voice should be respected.
I hope you can join me the picket line on August 1st to make your voice count too.
If you want to keep up to date with the strike as it develops, click going on the Facebook event.
And if you want to pledge to support staff when they go on strike, sign this petition.