August 19, 2021
From Red Flag (Australia)

The University of Western Australia prides itself on its liberal image and reputation as one of Australia’s elite campuses. Engraved on the sandstone walls of the Arts building is the university’s motto: “seek wisdom”. The words ring hollow in the context of huge cuts to staff and courses. Management is compromising the quality of teaching and research to increase profits.

Last October, the administration endorsed a restructure to address a supposed $70 million deficit in the university budget (the figure is has dropped to $40 million this year). The most egregious proposal is to cut 400 staff, according to figures in an National Tertiary Education Union petition.

Last month, three proposals were put forward, including a plan to abolish anthropology and sociology as areas of study, to reassign research roles to be “teaching focused” and to reduce Asian Studies to language courses only. The proposals were met with a groundswell of public opposition: from students, staff and prominent academics and alumni, to politicians, journalists and professional organisations such as the Australian Anthropological Society.

Vice-Chancellor Amit Chakma appeared on ABC Radio on 14 July in an attempt to save face. When interrogated about the proposed cuts, he admitted that seven or eight more schools would face “significant restructures”. Management clearly wanted to ram through the first round of cuts during the holiday period to catch students and staff off guard. The intention is to divide and conquer, targeting schools one at a time, allowing the outcry over each to die down before moving on to the next.

A demonstration of 250 people frustrated this process on 29 July, a rainy day during the mid-semester break. The protest was called by Socialist Alternative activists through the UWA Guild’s Education Action Network. A campus protest of an equivalent size hasn’t been seen in nearly two decades. Campaign groups sprung into existence overnight—one organised by a group of undergraduates, and another organised by postgraduates and alumni.

The organising efforts of students and staff helped delay the implementation of the proposals, but university management has doubled down. In an all-student email on 6 August, Chakma insisted that any “proposed changes in university operations and courses will not impact your studies”.

But on 19 August, students and staff were made aware of proposed cuts to the Finance Department, the Office of Research and the School of Molecular Sciences. The latter will lose eight permanent staff positions, contradicting the suggestion that students’ research and study won’t be affected.

The campaign against the restructure has become a fight against all attacks at the university. The start of semester has seen a flurry of activity—petitions, a forum and another campus protest. A referendum has been called for the Student Guild elections so that students can express their opinions about the restructure in an official vote. A few thousand votes won’t miraculously change Chakma’s mind, but it will put him in the tricky position if he goes against the will of the students—more damage to the precious reputation of university’s liberal values may be the result.

Students and staff will rally outside a meeting of the university senate on 23 August. In that meeting, a mere seventeen people have the power to make decisions about the future of students and staff. At stake in this campaign is the question of democracy. Do a select few university managers have the ability to scrap entire areas of study, or do students and staff have a say in how the institution is run?