Parents and teachers rallied outside the New South Wales parliament in Sydney last week to deliver a petition containing over 10,000 signatures opposing the state government’s plan to amalgamate two schools in the NSW central coast region—Gosford Public and Henry Kendall High.
The proposed merger of the primary and secondary schools is part of a wider cost-cutting agenda set in motion by the previous state Labor government—a drive that has been intensified by the current Liberal-National Party government of Premier Barry O’Farrell and the federal Labor government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard. According to recent media reports, five other schools in NSW were closed down at the end of last year and four others are under review.
In June 2010, the previous state Labor government unveiled a plan to sell Gosford Public, established in 1865 and located in Gosford’s central business district on prime waterfront land.
As many as 1,000 students, academics and general staff members demonstrated at the University of Sydney on Wednesday to voice their opposition to the planned destruction of up to 340 jobs by next semester. The event was organised by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and the Education Action Group, which is politically dominated by pseudo-left groups such as Solidarity and Socialist Alternative.
The protest was the second since the academic year began. The significant turn-out revealed the extent of concern over the threatened job losses and the wider assault on tertiary education that is being driven by the Gillard Labor government’s “education revolution” agenda. Insufficient funding has led to expanded class sizes and over-stretched facilities. Academic and staff positions are being slashed at universities around the country to cut costs.
The International Students for Social Equality opposes the planned destruction of hundreds of academic and professional jobs at the University of Sydney. The actions of the university administration are being driven by the Labor government’s pro-market “education revolution” and signify a new stage in its implementation. The Gillard government’s aim is to slash spending per student and deepen the transformation of universities from institutions of academic and intellectual achievement into profit-driven corporate concerns.
State governments in Australia have begun to implement the federal Labor government’s “Empowering Local Schools” program. In the name of greater school autonomy, it gives principals increased powers over teachers and other staff, paving the way for further budget cuts and the atomisation of the public education system.
The initial phase consists of a trial by 1,000 public and independent schools across Australia over the next two years. By 2018, according to Prime Minister Julia Gillard, all schools will be “self-governing”. Autonomy is a mechanism for transforming schools into businesses competing for students and resources, with those in working class areas losing out.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Labor government last month rejected a call by its own inquiry into school funding for a $5 billion annual increase in education spending to address the gross inequality in Australia’s school system.
Gillard said the report provided “great insight,” but she refused to commit any extra funds. Education minister Peter Garrett commented: “We’ve always said that we’re going to bring the budget back in to surplus [and] I think that’s the most important thing that we can do at this point in time.”
Even the limited 15 percent increase in funding recommended by the report is anathema to the Labor government. Its overwhelming priority is to satisfy the demands of the financial markets for the elimination of the budget deficit produced by the bailout packages during the first phase of the global financial crisis.
Figures released last month indicated that the number of breaches by teachers, school staff and principals in administering the 2011 National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests almost doubled from 2010. The results point to the immense pressure on schools and teachers to achieve high scores under the Gillard government’s My School testing regime.
In 2010, as part of its “education revolution,” the Labor government launched the My School website to rank schools nationally based on their performance in NAPLAN tests. Labor’s aim was not to identify students needing additional support—such indicators were already available—but to pit schools and teachers against each other, driven by the threat of falling enrolments, cuts to funding and eventual closure.
The Australian Labor government passed a bill last month to allow universities to charge all students an annual fee of up to $263 for basic student services, but expressly excluded any funding for political activities. As well as imposing an additional financial burden on students, the legislation reflects concerns in ruling circles about a developing political radicalisation among young people.
Student services had for decades been managed by student unions that received their funding from compulsory student union dues paid by all students on enrollment. However, since the rollout of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) by the previous Liberal-National Coalition government in 2007, services have either collapsed as many students elected not to pay the union fees or were taken over by university administrations.
Just one day after a new enterprise agreement was pushed through by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) at Sydney’s Macquarie University last week, the management announced redundancies. No sooner had the university’s academic staff members voted in an online ballot on the three-year agreement, than the management declared it was seeking 70 “voluntary separations”—3 percent of the workforce—and other unspecified cuts to staffing levels to achieve further “salary savings”.
The timing of the job cuts underlines the direct connection between the enterprise agreements that the NTEU has helped impose on staff at individual universities across Australia during the past 18 months, and the Gillard government’s “education revolution”—which is turning the entire university sector into a market-driven system.
The following statement is being circulated by Socialist Equality Party supporters at Macquarie University in Sydney, where the National Tertiary Education Union is seeking to push through a new enterprise agreement that will further the federal Labor government’s “education revolution.” Similar agreements have been imposed at individual universities across Australia over the past 18 months, with the union isolating its members at each campus in order to prevent a unified struggle against the introduction of a free market regime that will undercut the conditions of staff and students nationally, as part of a broader assault on public services.
Events in the Australian state of Tasmania over the past few weeks have shone a revealing spotlight on the role of the Greens in spearheading austerity measures. In what the Murdoch-owned Hobart Mercury described as a “stunning backdown”, the Labor-Green state government was forced by public outrage to postpone plans to shut down 20 schools by the end of the year.
Closely supported by national Greens leader Bob Brown, the party’s state leader Nick McKim had been assigned the task—as education minister—of implementing the closures, a substantial attack on the public education system in a state with just over half a million people.