Commencement Ceremony Crashed by Dual Protests28 February 2020
Billed as “the core of the Melbourne Orientation experience,” the Melbourne Commencement Ceremony was derailed on Tuesday afternoon by two protest actions, demanding both university action and student mobilisation. Both the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and Unimelb Students for Climate Justice staged separate protests at the Royal Exhibition Building, where the event was being held for commencing Bachelor of Arts students.
The day began with the University of Melbourne branch of the National Tertiary Education Union staging a protest outside the building, directly addressing commencing students waiting to take their seats.
NTEU delegate Geraldine Fela addressed the rally and commencing students, saying “we’re here to tell you about the absolutely rampant wage theft that takes place every single day at this university. We’re here to talk to you about the fact that at this university we will not be paid to attend your lectures this year, even though we are tutoring your courses… It’s a major, major problem.”
An open letter distributed to the crowd by the organisers emphasised that 72.5% of staff at the University of Melbourne are employed in insecure work. It further demanded payment for lecture attendance by casual tutors, an increase in marking pay, that suitable consultation space and desks for causal staff and PhD students be provided, and the payment of casual staff for every hour worked.
The letter, which was read to the crowd, goes on to emphasise that, “our working conditions are your learning conditions.”
The protest was supported by a student delegation, led by The University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) Education department.
“It’s a student issue, what happens to staff working at the uni. We’re really proud to be here in solidarity, but we’re also really happy to be here to fight for students,” said Charlie Joyce, UMSU Education Public Affairs Officer.
“Staff to student ratios have increased by 25% and this is having a negative impact on the quality of education at Melbourne Uni. They cry poor when it comes to things that actually matter and impact students. For reference, there’s been $300 000 spent on hoodies. It’s ridiculous. It’s unacceptable.”
Hannah Buchan, UMSU President, emphasised the link between students’ rights and workers’ rights when asked about the choice of time and venue for the protest.
“I think that fundamentally, especially in a university setting where we have a reliance on casual tutors to teach us our classes, when our tutors aren’t getting paid, our quality of education goes down. It really is in students’ interest to stand up for workers’ rights and make sure they are getting a fair wage for the work that they do and making sure that they are giving us the best quality of education.”
This protest is the latest in a campaign, led by the NTEU against the treatment of staff at the University over the past 6-8 months, which has included a series of actions, including the occupation of Dean Russell Goulbourne’s office in November of 2019.
As the commencement ceremony began, a second protest by the Unimelb Students for Climate Justice halted proceedings, as a group of protestors took to the stage with shouts for “Climate Justice”. They addressed commencing students directly, calling for student activism and criticising the University of Melbourne’s sponsorship of the mining industry. As they held a large banner reading “Fridays for Future: Uni Students 4 Climate Justice,” the group, though met by cheers from the audience, were drowned out by loud music, before leaving the stage.
A spokesperson for the group said the action was to “promote climate activism on campus and protest against the university’s ties to the fossil fuel industry.”
“The University of Melbourne funds fossil fuel and weapons research and was a major sponsor of the IMARC conference last year….Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell and the rest of the university board members would rather students go about their business as usual on campus, attending their commencement ceremonies and going to classes without challenging the status quo.”
“For Duncan we have a simple message: student climate activism is back on the agenda for 2020.”
Further protest actions from Unimelb Students for Climate Justice are planned throughout the semester, including the National Student Day of Action for Climate Justice on Friday, the 13th of March.
The University of Melbourne has been contacted for comment.
Updated Comments 05.02.2020.
A University spokesperson responded to the NTEU protest demands saying, “the University does not contest that casual sessional tutors should be paid to attend lectures associated with their teaching when required by the University. We do not accept the Union’s view that casual sessional tutors should attend all lectures in place of lecture guidelines.”
“Consistent with its obligations set out in the enterprise agreement, the University provides casual employees access to available facilities and resource comparable with the flexible and ad hoc nature of their casual employment.”
In response to the Unimelb Students for Climate Justice protest criticising the University’s sponsorship of non-renewable industry, the University spokesperson said, “the University supports the event so it can raise awareness about our partnerships in the mining sector and demonstrate how we can work together to reduce the impact of mining on the environment. This includes research into how to take the mining industry into the digital world and improve efficiencies and make mining safer and more sustainable.”