UNSW rattled by successful protest against restructure

“Come on out and face us! Come on out and face us!”, chanted hundreds of students outside the UNSW Chancellery at a rally on 8 March. Joined by NTEU staff members, the protest aimed to shake up vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs for the announcement made late last year that management was implementing trimesters by 2019. The rally did its job. It was large and angry and elicited a tantrum from management. It is the beginning of a much-needed campaign.

The UNSW3+ plan is one of the worst attacks on students and staff in decades. It involves condensing 13-week units into 10 weeks, something that has put enormous stress on students and staff at other universities where it has been implemented.

Trimesters will also mean that students who receive youth allowance will have to increase their study load by 50 percent in order to be eligible for the payment for the whole year. In other words, the poorest students will be hit hardest.

But as with all “innovative restructures” being rolled out on campuses these days, the move to trimesters is being used as the Trojan Horse for a number of other historic attacks, including mass sackings. The NTEU predicts that at least 400 jobs will be cut. More than 150 staff have already been told their jobs are gone, and the restructure is not slated to begin officially until 2019!

The university is using the new model to overhaul staff conditions, increasing casualisation and work loads and entrenching a strict division between teaching and research roles. It is likely that many courses will be abolished altogether.

This plan is nothing more than a money-making scheme, churning students through low quality degrees that stay at the same high price, and squeezing dry a smaller, casualised workforce.

As one NTEU member said in a meeting recently, the “plus” in the UNSW3+ points to the fact that the university wants plus output from staff and plus dollars from students.

Management know they cannot sell their restructure honestly. Instead they have been lying, scheming and condescending to students and staff for months. The more we fight, the more dishonest and desperate they become.

Their response to the first rally was indicative. Like a drunken text from a disgruntled ex, students received an email at 4am the morning after the protest aimed at “correcting the misunderstandings” about trimesters. In reality it was a list of alternative facts, including the one that UNSW is a “not-for-profit organisation”.

To a casual observer, the fact that the university regularly records “surplus revenues” above $1.75 billion looks a lot like profit. But of course much of this is reinvested into our futures, such as the $50 million the university spends on fossil fuel investments or the vice-chancellor’s salary, which was $1.015 million in 2015.

It was, however, satisfying to see the university attempt to respond to each and every one of the arguments made by speakers at the rally. UNSW is losing the PR battle, despite spending $25 million on consultancy fees to Price Waterhouse Coopers over the last 13 months.

The protest marked the beginning of what looks like it will be a long battle against management. While they maintain their walls of authority, we too have a hefty advantage: most students either know of or detest trimesters. The campaign has so far made enough noise to make the issue a big deal, and it will need to do more of this to become bigger. The more students work alongside staff in the NTEU, the more strength we will have on our side.

This year the National Union of Students is running a campaign to demand that education be made free again. Our battle against trimesters shows how crucial such a demand is if we are to arrest the neoliberal trajectory of higher education. And our first rally shows that the age of student protest that brought us free education is not an anachronism, but something we can and should fight to rebuild.