by Nicole McEwen


Our university is run like a business.

A ‘restructure’ (A.K.A course and staff cuts) to the tune of $40 million is rolling out this semester. The appalling Proposal for Change (rebuttal here) in the School of Social Sciences is just the beginning. On ABC Radio, Vice Chancellor Amit Chakma – who is essentially the CEO of UWA – announced seven to eight more schools would be targeted this semester. He wants to use the age-old tactic of divide and rule, cutting up our education school by school. This is a guide to how we understand the cuts, and how we can fight them – united in our numbers. We are the lifeblood of UWA, and we shouldn’t let management forget it.


1. Follow the money

There are two parts to this.

The broader context is that Australia is facing an unprecedented attack on higher education. Government funding for higher education has plummeted to a record low 23.5 per cent of the Federal education budget. The recent Job Ready Graduates Package from the Liberals seeks to make the whole sector more profitable, by tying education to industry. It has meant charging arts students more and stuffing them in crowded classes with fewer staff. It has also meant that universities are expected to seek more private sources of funding. We all know that in WA, that means mining corporations. The ideological argument isn’t simply that ‘arts don’t matter’ – it’s that your degree should be fundamentally linked to a profitable industry and is only valuable insofar as it can guarantee a job that will line the pockets of mining magnates like Rinehart and Forrest. If it’s not, you deserve to pay through the nose for the privilege of having your degree reflect your desire to learn about the world.

The restructure at UWA should be understood in these terms. The whole plan for Social Sciences makes sense from management’s standpoint because it cuts the “dead weight” of everything they deem less profitable. The plan prioritises research in archaeology – a sector that has close ties to mining. The Centre for Rock Art Research & Management is funded by Rio Tinto: what I see as an attempt to whitewash the company’s history of blowing up Indigenous sites like Juukan Gorge. Increasing the student to staff ratio to 35:1 is a way to pump graduates through a degree factory run by overworked and underpaid staff. This, of course, is “efficient” and “streamlined” education, all in the name of “student experience.” Such phrases are all codswallop and gobbledygook; what is happening is simply the corporatisation of higher education, where private interests dictate what we learn and research.

The starting point for our campaign should be to understand that all of management’s decisions are motivated by profit, and that is why they are running the university like a business. This is fundamentally counterposed to the interests of the majority of staff, students, and the rest of our society. We want fair student-to-staff ratios, lecturers, and support staff who aren’t overloaded, and the freedom to learn and research topics according to what can better society, not line the pockets of the rich. And we want to have a say in how our university, the place we pour years of our lives into, looks and functions. None of that is conducive to the plans that the Liberals and Vice-Chancellors have in store for us.


2. Know your enemy & know our strength

VC Amit Chakma was brought to UWA in order to slash and burn. His strategy is to divide and conquer. First, they come for Social Sciences. Who is next? They will attack school by school, sacking staff and squeezing students for every cent. They claim UWA has been “living beyond its means” (going so far as to attack staff on Twitter) and that we need to tighten our belts now. Never mind that they make millions. Never mind that the data on the supposed $40M deficit is totally opaque, and UWA has assets worth hundreds of millions. Never mind that it has been contested – we are just meant to accept the words of a man who double dipped his own salary at his previous position at Western University in Canada.

The fact management cares only about profits means we can’t convince them. There is no convincing those who have an interest in privatisation and profitability that you have a better plan, or that what they are doing is not good for students or for the future of our society. If their claims to care about that were remotely true, every executive manager would give up their exorbitant salaries and bonuses and take the average wage of a staff member at UWA (which is 83k per year).

We should expose their hypocrisy. We should decry their deceits publicly and loudly. We should show up to every Senate meeting, every board meeting, every UniClub event for the rich and powerful, and demand to be seen and heard. We should be uncompromising and unruly. And we should remember that our strength comes from our numbers, when we fight together, staff and students united.

As slave abolitionist Fredrick Douglas said, “power concedes nothing without a demand”. We need to demand that the proposal we have seen for Social Sciences be scrapped. Any concession we can win in this first battle will force management onto the back foot and strengthen our side. If we are strong, we can demand every proposal that comes from this restructure be scrapped. We can demand the savings come from the top, not the people who do all of the work. No academics, no IT staff, no admin workers, no groundskeepers or assistants, and no students should bear the brunt of this supposed deficit. We didn’t cause it and we won’t pay for it. And if we can have a win here at UWA, it will embolden our side at other campuses. If students and staff across the country fight, we can demand that this attack on the entire education sector stop.

What we do now matters. We have to grow a grassroots campaign to defend our education. We have to hit the ground running in Week One and onwards, plaster the campus with posters, talk to students, do lecture announcements, and bring it up in every class. 250 people protested the cuts to social science, during the semester break, in the rain, at a week’s notice. There is momentum here, and if we continue to push outwards and involve students across the schools, we can fight back and win.

Follow UWA Education Action Network. Join the Organising Group. Come to the upcoming events, including the protest this WednesdayStay up to date with the campaign timeline.


Image courtesy of UWA Education Action Network

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