September 12, 2021
From Red Flag (Australia)

Students and staff at the University of Wollongong are locked in an ongoing battle with university management. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a sustained attack on conditions of teaching, learning, and campus services. When the pandemic disrupted the normal operations of universities, bosses seized the moment to launch a restructure named “One-UOW” that will see up to 40 per cent of non-academic staff cut in some departments.

Under former vice chancellor Paul Wellings, who has since taken up a position as advisor to Scott Morrison, 185 permanent staff were made redundant in the past year. On top of that, the Campus Morning Mail reported that 1,512 casual positions were scrapped. Staff endured “temporary” cuts to wages and conditions. Amenities including the campus counselling service were gutted, and staff workloads have increased enormously.

This year has seen the abrupt closure of the bulk billed on-campus GP. In a message to patients, clinic doctor Cartan Costello described the closure as a result of a “culture at UOW that treats students and healthcare as commodities to be exploited”.

All this has hit students hard. Teaching staff are overworked and hard to reach. In the student centre, often only two of the dozen desks are staffed, and basic administrative requests take weeks or months to resolve.

Over the past year, an organised resistance to management has developed in the form of a campaign group called UOW Fightback, led by socialists in the student union and rank-and-file members of the local NTEU branch.

A high point of the campaign came with the departure of the much-loathed VC, Paul Wellings. To celebrate a career of cutting ribbons and cutting wages, Wellings organised himself a dinner that cost at least $20,000, inviting a host of notables including senior Liberal Party figures rumoured to include John Howard and Tony Abbott, notorious former UNSW VC Ian Jacobs, and a host of other Wollongong high-flyers.

Incensed at such an ostentatious display of contempt towards sacked staff and struggling students, UOW Fightback organised “Blockade UOW”. In the largest on-campus protest since the campaign for marriage equality, 150 protesters picketed Wellings’ farewell dinner, surrounding the event and barring access to the carpark where tuxedoed guests were being ushered in.

Management responded by inviting riot cops and mounted police onto campus intimidate and manhandle protestors. After a couple of hours of back and forth, police and campus security retreated into the building.

Wellings’ departure, however, presents challenges for the campaign. University bosses are hoping that a re-brand under new vice chancellor Patricia Davidson will disarm student and staff anger. Davidson has launched a campaign to put a human face on the cuts. Her first all-student email asked us to call her “Trish” and talked up her origins as a nurse, one who would “listen carefully to your views and feedback”. In an interview with ABC Illawarra on her first day as VC, Davidson vowed an “open door” approach to management, and again emphasised her credentials as a former nurse.

To clarify Davidson’s stance, student activists took advantage of this “open door” policy early in her tenure, meeting with her to get a direct response to the campaign’s key demands: will you reverse the cuts, offer all sacked staff their jobs back, and commit to no further cuts or restructures at UOW? Her response to every single one of these demands was at first evasion, and then a gently worded email that amounted to no on all counts.

When pressed in the meeting about her $1.1 million salary, and what exactly she did to deserve it, Davidson simply reiterated, with increasing levels of irritation, that it was “industry standard”, and that she was “a scientist”. One would be hard pressed to find another “scientist” or “nurse” on a seven figure salary in Wollongong.

On top of existing staff cuts, management is seeking a further $10 million cut to the wages bill in 2022 as they consolidate the One-UOW model. Davidson’s ABC Illawarra interview foreshadowed permanent online content, “fee paying online courses”, as a priority for UOW. Already, the pandemic has been used as pretext to recycle lecture content at UOW and cut live teaching hours as a cost-saving measure, and its further implementation represents an extension of the attack on learning and teaching quality.

Likewise, the campus clinic’s closure soon after Davidson’s arrival reveals quite clearly that her past life as a nurse means little, compared to her current interests as head of Wollongong’s second largest employer.

With ongoing cuts and a new PR strategy from management, activists must continue to fight against backsliding standards. There’s good reason to think that students will support a continued campaign. UOW Rants, a student-run Facebook page, is filled with anonymous grievances about the impact of campus cuts. One recent post read: “Uh is anyone absolutely horrified that the uni is making our lecturer (king Greg) WORK THIS WEEK AFTER ALMOST HAVING A MAJOR HEART ATTACK? He messaged the cohort and has said he’s been classified as fit to work????”

UOW Fightback will be rallying via Zoom at 12:30pm on Wednesday September 29 as a crucial step to building an ongoing struggle against the cuts.