It was standing room only at a public meeting in Footscray in which more than 100 people heard about the campaign to defend jobs and courses at Victoria University. Management wants to sack up to one quarter of all academic staff.
VU Council and management claim that the changes are financially necessary and will lead to an improved “student experience”. In reality they are an attack on staff conditions and a fundamental threat to the only university in Melbourne’s western suburbs.
The plan is to replace experienced teaching and research academics with teaching-only staff on lower wages, lumbered with higher workloads and reduced retrenchment provisions. A further 50 staff will be moved to so-called “education-focused” roles, with higher teaching hours and limited research and career opportunities. The new arrangements look suspiciously like an intensified workload model that was proposed by management last year and overwhelmingly rejected in a staff vote.
Speakers at the 27 April meeting, hosted by the community campaign group Friends of VU, included Ged Kearney, president of the ACTU, and Colleen Hartland, Greens MP. In a statement read to the meeting, Electrical Trades Union state secretary Troy Grey described VU attempts to “cheapen the workforce” as “CUB mark 2”, referring to Carlton United Breweries’ much publicised and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to gut the wages and conditions of its maintenance workforce. Grey, whose union fought the CUB plan, pledged a $10,000 donation from the ETU to the NTEU fighting fund.
Ex-student Halima Mohamad said it was important that there is a local university option for western suburbs migrant communities. A current postgraduate student spoke about the distress at losing supervisors, with no clarity provided as to who might replace them. A staff member described how some students were told just days before classes started that their courses had been cut.
All speakers rejected what looks like an attempt to turn VU into a US-style community college with less choice and overworked staff who have no time to support students.
The attacks at VU are part of a push by vice-chancellors across the country to increase teaching workloads, reduce research time and cut wages. The line coming from their offices is that research is a privilege, not a right, and should be undertaken in one’s own time. Increasingly corporatised universities will demand still more of staff for less given the further cuts to funding recently announced.
Under the plan, VU staff will be less able to engage in community-driven research that can ensure their teaching approach is up to date and relevant to the people of the western suburbs. VU staff have a proud history of working with migrant and working class communities in the west and providing quality education to those who face extra challenges in their studies. These attacks on staff threaten that history and suggest that those living in the west deserve only a second-rate education.
All present vowed to fight the cuts and sackings. Two motions were passed unanimously, calling for further action and a community rally to pressure the VU Council to drop its plans.