University of Otago: Fight For Every Job

Senior managers at the University of Otago want to slash hundreds of jobs. They want to cut $60 million from their annual budget and today announced voluntary redundancies with plans for more job losses to come.

This is not a done deal. It should be opposed. We face difficult days ahead. But the old union slogan is true: if you don’t fight, you lose. We should fight for every job.

More cuts at Otago would be bad for students, staff, the University, Dunedin, the wider community and public education in Aotearoa. It cannot be justified. And accepting the logic that drives this austerity won’t save who gets left from cuts next time. The logic of austerity will grind on. Hundreds of jobs went under Harlene Hayne, who boasted in 2021 that these ‘hard decisions’ had protected the university. She’s over at Curtin University now, earning over a million dollars a year and trying to force through real pay cuts at that university. The line is always that cuts now will prevent cuts some time in the future. That future has never come. Let’s draw a line in the sand.

There is no case for cuts. Domestic student numbers are down by less than one percent, and international numbers have increased. Universities are not private businesses but a public good: we should reject the whole logic of austerity and call their bluff. The claim that short or medium-term debt for Otago would not be “tenable” does not stand up to scrutiny. Would the government really let the country’s oldest university collapse? Are the receivers going to be called in? Let’s get serious.

University Vice Chancellors last year rejected calls from the Tertiary Education Union to have joint talks with the government seeking more funding for the sector. They can’t cry poor now. Last year they made it clear they would rather oversee austerity on their own terms than seek real action for sustainable funding for tertiary education. They cannot now expect us passively to accept our own jobs getting cut for their priorities.

What can we do? For starters, let’s say we’re going to fight. Staff, students and the community can rally, protest, make noise, politicise this as a political issue. Labour claims to stand for education: will they stand by while the Vice Chancellors gut our universities? A fightback won’t guarantee a victory. But defeatism guarantees a loss. 

Already media reports are softening us up for defeatism. Stuff announces that staff “will” lose their jobs because the university “needs to slash” around $60 million. This is dressing up the university management’s justifications as fact. The ODT is closer to the mark when it quotes union organiser Phil Edwards’ response: this is “madness”.

What happens at Otago will be watched closely by bosses across the sector. Already they are talking mass redundancies at Te Pūkenga. Victoria announced a $15million deficit at the start of this year. Massey is proposing job cuts. If Otago manages to push through these short-sighted and destructive cuts it could be open season for public university education across these islands.

It’s time to be realistic and face facts. Here are two. The people – the Vice Chancellors and their deputies – talking about ‘hard choices’ are earning upwards of half a million dollars a year. Austerity won’t be for them. We need to take sides.

And we need to talk seriously about strike action against job losses. This goes against the current industrial rules, sure, but when were these ever tested? What’s the point of ‘good faith’ engagement when the employer, year by year, cuts our universities to the bone? Coordinated strike action defying these wrecking actions against our university identifies them for what they are: political attacks that require a political response. The government could step in. They are choosing not to. They will only change their minds if that choice becomes harder. Let’s talk strikes. This is an election year – make tertiary education matter. If Otago’s management can push this through without a fight who knows what will come next. 

These are hard times in universities, and staff at Otago know what the job loss process feels like. We also know our allies: students, other unionists, educators in primary and secondary education. We need to act.

Dare to struggle, dare to win! If you don’t fight you lose!

Brandon and Dougal are ISO tertiary education workers and activists in the Tertiary Education Union writing in a personal capacity