Mass sacking planned at Victoria University

By Jo Williams

On the afternoon of Friday, October 17, Victoria University vice-chancellor Elizabeth Harman sent an email to all staff describing her “unhappy” decision to proceed with 270 “voluntary and targeted” redundancies. This amounts to a quarter of VU’s academic staff and a further 100 general staff losing their jobs, in what is being described as the single biggest mass sacking at an Australian university. The primary justification offered was that the job cuts were to save money for an $850 million building program. Just who will be left to teach in the new buildings remains unanswered.

Staff responded with a 350-strong mass meeting on October 23, which voted unanimously to mount a campaign against the job-cuts, including authorising the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) to request permission from the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) to conduct a ballot of members on a vote for industrial action. This is required under anti-union Work Choices legislation brought in by the Howard government and still in force a year after the election of the Rudd Labor government. The mass meeting also called for Harman’s resignation.

The response from the VU administration and the corporation representative-stacked VU Council, the university’s governing body, has been to forge ahead with its plans with some changes in the terms, in response to pressure from the staff campaign. After the local NTEU branch exposed the economic arguments of Harman’s claims as flawed and irresponsible from the point of view of the long-term sustainability of the institution, the administration included alleged problems of productivity and a looming budget deficit as justifications for the sackings. The administration has also made decisions to close two outer suburban campuses, at Melton and Sunbury, claiming they are financially unviable.

The initial industrial action ballot application was rejected by the AIRC, on a legal technicality. The VU administration has used provisions in Howard’s Work Choices legislation to prevent members from being able to democratically decide on taking action to defend their jobs and working conditions.

On paper, VU is committed to providing for the educational needs of students from Melbourne’s disadvantaged western suburbs. The recent moves however reveal the VU management as commercial empire builders, aiming to compete for fee-paying students with “sandstone” institutions like Melbourne University, and their social justice rhetoric as simply a marketing strategy.

Responses from the local communities have already started to have an impact on local ALP MPs, especially those concerned with the waning popularity of the state Labor government. On October 27, Jacinta Allen, Victoria’s minister for both regional and rural development as well as minister for workforce skills and participation, told The Australian: “It is unfortunate that Victoria University has made this decision prior to the completion of the federal government’s Review of Higher Education which is expected to report in December 2008.”

The Rudd Labor governments, as with past federal Labor governments, is keen to demonstrate its ability to keep a lid on any industrial responses to a stagnating economy. This explains Labor’s inaction on repealing Work Choices, which it promised to do before winning last November’s federal election. At the same time Labor will be keen to encourage some restraint in the use of Work Choices from managers of commercial businesses, including the “public” universities. As with all Labor governments, the Rudd government aims to protect business interests, increasingly endangered by the global economic situation, while maintaining industrial peace. Most of the union officialdom has demonstrated that it is quite willing to subordinate its members’ interests to those of the Labor government.

The bosses in the higher education sector however look set to give Rudd some grief, despite the removal in February of the Higher Education Workplace Relations Requirements (HEWRR). Through its introduction of the HEWRR, the Howard government successfully tied university’s industrial relations agenda to government funding of the higher education sector. Among other things, funding for universities was dependent on reduced job security, greater casualisation, the forced use of individual contracts and limits on the right of unions to organise their members.

Far from the removal of the HEWRR leading to a renewed commitment to good-faith bargaining and the restoration of the conditions that the sector gave up to guarantee government funding, VU management is one of a number who are rigorously exploiting the Work Choices legislation to slash jobs, increase workloads and cut courses. Among those who voted for the ALP on the basis of a promised “education revolution” this should sharply highlight Labor’s lack of interest in making the changes actually necessary to strengthen public higher education in this country.

As the campaign against job cuts at VU gathers momentum and looks to join with staff and students fighting similar attacks at LaTrobe and Melbourne universities, it is clear that nothing less than a fundamental change in policy direction for higher education — away from commercialisation and corporatisation — is desperately needed. The questions of what public universities and TAFEs do, how and by whom decisions are made and who is able to access higher education are fundamental. This will require higher education unions to challenge the neoliberal capitalist outlook that dominates university administrations.

[Jo Williams is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party and a member of the Victoria University NTEU branch committee.]