By Charles Fedor
Yesterday afternoon saw protesters rally against UWA management’s proposals to cut staff from a number of Schools and professional departments at the University. Beginning with a mass group photo, continuing with a rally, and culminating in an unexpected occupation of the UWA Chancellery, the protest was a focal point for the wider campaign against the restructuring process pursued by the University Executive.
Approximately 300 students, staff, and members of the community initially gathered near the Reflection Pool at Winthrop Hall. Protesters received word that the Vice-Chancellor Professor Amit Chakma was on his way to the Chancellery building for the planned Senate meeting. Education Action Network coordinator Nicole McEwen led the protesters to the steps of the Chancellery, with the intention of demonstrating the large number of students and staff furious with the proposed restructures.
However, the Vice-Chancellor was nowhere to be seen, so protesters were led to the back of the building. At this point, the doors leading to a conference room were found to be unlocked, and a group of protesters entered the building in a spontaneous move to occupy the room. More than forty protesters filed into the building before Security closed and locked the doors.
Contrary to some online rumours, the occupation was a peaceful one, with the only reports of physical contact with staff occurring when security initially attempted to shepherd protesters out of the conference room.
Once inside, students marshalled in the foyer and continued to chant slogans like “the only cut we want to see, is Amit Chakma’s salary!” After this, protesters filed into a conference room facing the remaining protesters outside. Ten minutes later, Mr Trevor Humphrey (Director of Campus Management) walked in, noting to protestors that the occupation had disrupted the proceedings of the Senate. This was followed by a polite enquiry about the intention of the protest. McEwen stated that it was a peaceful occupation, and that the protesters wished to speak to the Chancellor or Vice-Chancellor. After some resistance by Mr Humphrey on the idea of having the Vice-Chancellor speak to thirty-nine protesters (citing the complicated logistics involved), students remained adamant that this must occur in public view. After a back-and-forth over terms, it was agreed that the Vice-Chancellor would ‘hear out’ the protestors. The group inside agreed on a number of discussion points to put to the Vice-Chancellor:
- Point One: Open the books and reveal the underlying data for the proposal.
- Point Two: Restart the Social Science consultation process.
- Point Three: Reveal which other schools are going to be experiencing restructures.
- Point Four: Reveal what the effects of these restructures will be on students.
- Point Five: Explain why Executive salary cuts were not on the table.
- Point Six: Respect the result of the upcoming student referendum.
- Point Seven: Engage in a publicly accessible debate and consultation moving forward.
These democratic Points were then put to the Vice-Chancellor as he entered the room. Students held the door as Professor Chakma made his way to the whiteboard. McEwen thanked him for agreeing to speak to the protesters, Pressed on the first Point, the Vice- Chancellor gave a somewhat evasive answer, stating “we’ll share the appropriate information in a way that you can understand”. The Vice-Chancellor took the approach of comparing the University budget to an individual’s personal budget, asking the audience:
- “Do any of you work?”
- “Do any of you pay rent?”
When asked why the University could not release the full financial information that had led to the restructuring decisions as opposed to this type of explanation, Dr Chakma remarked that “the budget information is so complicated” and that he was “here to simplify it.”
Pressed on his own salary and that of his Executive, the Vice-Chancellor asserted he had taken “a significant pay cut from [his] previous salary.” He then insisted that “we are privileged to live in a country which is governed by the rule of law” and that members of the Executive “have been hired on a contract and we have to honour the contract.”
At this point, McEwen responded that “everyone’s been hired on a contract and you’re making them redundant.”
On the second Point, Dr Chakma stated “we are not starting the process again.” On questions around good faith in negotiations, Dr Chakma asserted “We have engaged in good faith, that’s why we’ve produced a proposal.”
Finally, McEwen called an end to the conversation, encouraging the protesters to “thank Amit Chakma for his time out of his very busy day of cutting jobs.”
From there, the group in the room filed out to join the main group of protesters outside the building, who had been continuing the rally with a number of students, staff, NTEU representatives, and political leaders addressing the audience. Speakers included NTEU UWA Branch President Dr Sanna Peden and committee members Dr Andrew Broertjes and Dr Nazim Khan, Greens Lead Senate Candidate Dorinda Cox, and PhD students in the Sean Li and Juliana La Pegna.
The rally continued, with a number of attendees suggesting approaches for resisting cuts. If this is Chakma’s war, it seems that students and staff have fight remaining.
Keep an eye on the Pelican Facebook page later this morning for photos of the protest, and a full video and transcript of the conversation between Dr Chakma and protesters.