As national lobby group Universities Australia was calling on the federal government to rule out any further cuts to universities and students in this month’s federal budget, university staff staged industrial action on May Day in support of a new wage and conditions campaign.
But both Universities Australia and the National Tertiary Education Union, which organised the strikes, work stoppages and protests, are alarmed at revelations by Prime Minister Julie Gillard on Monday of a new A$12 billion (US$12.4 billion) hit to the government’s budget, to be handed down on 14 May.
“Off the back of A$3.8 billion in cuts inflicted on universities and students over the past six months, the Australian community is becoming increasingly concerned that a high quality university system is being sacrificed to fund school reforms, when both are part of the recipe for national success,” said Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson.
Robinson said Gillard had effectively quarantined the nation’s schools from cuts in the budget and the government should now do the same for the university sector.
“As the PM said, the government will not ‘fail the future by not making the wise investments that will make us a stronger and smarter nation’. But inflicting financial pain on universities and their students unfortunately flies in the face of this vital aspiration.
“Schools and universities are part of the same family and share the same objectives. Strengthening one while weakening the other compromises the government’s goal of making us a stronger and smarter nation.”
In Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, university staff were planning action in support of their claims for better pay and conditions. At the University of New England, academics were preparing picket lines and a 24-hour strike over “obdurate management as well as a lack of transparency and a decline in collegiality at the institution”.
Meanwhile, 1,000 professors and assistant professors called on the prime minister to reverse the A$2.3 billion cuts to university and student funding that she announced last month.
In an open letter published in newspapers around the country on Wednesday, senior academics from every public and private university said the cuts “fundamentally jeopardise the future of higher education in Australia”.
“Our universities are at tipping point – core funding per student and support for basic research continue to decline while Australian students now pay some of the highest public university fees in the world,” the letter stated.
“While your government has created over 150,000 new undergraduate places, the expansion is eroding the quality of teaching and research because it has not been properly funded.”
National Tertiary Education Union President Jeannie Rea said that it was hard to remember a time when Australia’s professors and associate professors were more disillusioned. Rea said the latest cuts brought the amount that the Gillard government had taken out of promised university funding since 2011 to more than A$4 billion.
“Governments demand that universities continue to do more with less, and just expect both academic and professional staff to make up the difference, relying upon their commitment to their students and research,” Rea said.
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