Why academics should support the SCA occupation

The students currently occupying the Sydney College of the Arts have every reason, and also every right, to assert their physical presence there. Art students belong in an art school. The occupation furthers their demand not to be deprived of what they were promised when they enrolled: a genuine, studio-based arts education. It also affirms a principle for which, apparently, neither Sydney University’s main management, nor the Art School, feels the slightest responsibility: the centrality of the arts, and therefore of arts education, to a healthy community.

SCA students should be supported by everyone who thinks that universities must be more than business schools. Nothing in Sydney University’s much touted commitment to ‘leadership’ or ‘community engagement’, it seems, stands in the way of it gutting a major component of NSW’s arts infrastructure. Yet Sydney has just spent $180m on the palatial new Abercrombie Building, described as ‘a key milestone on our journey to becoming one of the world’s leading business schools’.

Why is a world-leading MBA programme a more urgent ambition than a world-leading arts one? Unfortunately, it’s in no way too simplistic to conclude that it’s because the arts don’t appeal much to the finance, fossil-fuel, and gambling executives who control the university’s fortunes (see the section ‘the corporates on Senate’ in the NTEU’s 2015 Counter-Report on Sydney University). This interest group recently tightened its stranglehold over university decisions when democratic representation on the Senate was slashed.

‘See and experience the University of Sydney for yourself. You never know where your journey might take you’, prospective students are told on the website advertising the university’s open day this Saturday. If the University gets its way, SCA students’ journey will be right out of the studio. What other programmes being marketed to students on Saturday will be next in line for the same kind of fate?

It’s not just students who are affected: significant numbers of staff stand to lose their jobs if management moves a heavily reduced arts school to the already overcrowded main campus. As the university begins to implement its new ‘strategic’ plan, SCA staff’s necks may not be the only ones on the block. The Vice-Chancellor, Michael Spence, has form: in 2011, he summarily announced that hundreds of academic staff were faced with the sack because they did not meet a retrospective performance criterion. More recently, a major restructure at the library put numerous jobs under threat. The consequences on the level of service at the library are obvious to all.

The attack on SCA is the latest iteration of the university management’s ongoing campaign against its own staff and students. The managerialist narrowness of vision, the dogged commitment to a top-down mode of governance, the bullish determination to plough through no matter what — all this would appear dismally clapped-out and backward-looking if Sydney’s leaders were known for anything but their subservience to the norms of market reason. Of course, as they have repeatedly shown – most recently through their support for deregulation in 2014 – there is no reason to know them for much else. Their rhetorical commitment to collegiality and ‘consultation’ doesn’t take anyone in. It’s up to students, and to those staff who’d prefer to work in a proper, collegially run institution that respects artistic and intellectual values, not to let them get away with it. By opposing the plans for SCA, staff contribute to their own security of tenure.

No one should believe the university when it cries poor to justify its plans for the art school. It has just run the most successful philanthropic appeal in Australia, attaining its $600m fundraising target two years early [pdf]. Now, it tells us, it has set a new one. Evidently it is out of the question that any of that could possibly be assigned to SCA. It is simply extraordinary that Australia’s oldest university, which constantly trades on its culture and humanism, cannot find it in itself to commit to Arts education in an environment where cash is gushing into its coffers.

In actual fact, the occupation we should be talking about isn’t the one by the students. The real occupation is happening in the Quadrangle, which has been taken over by corporate interests with no conception of universities’ value – other, of course, than a blinkered tribalist commitment to Sydney’s ‘brand’ dominance against its ‘competitors’. The representatives of these interests may sometimes find it necessary to feign a commitment to higher education. Most of the time, even that pretence is not deemed necessary.

Not only should the students continue the occupation as long as necessary: they should begin to implement their demand, with staff, that a representative committee of staff and students constitute itself as an alternative ‘management’ of SCA. Universities desperately need to find new, democratic forms of governance if they want to preserve what they have of value. An arts school, with its commitment to the values of imagination and fearless expression, isn’t a bad place to start.

Nick Riemer

The views and opinions expressed above are personal and belong solely to the author