Tenaya Alattas talks about free school and collective strength

At the University of Sydney the struggle for worker’s conditions has been at the forefront of education campaigns; with student-run protests guided by an allegiance to staff. In 2012 we saw mass rallies, petitions, a referendum and an occupation to fight against the decision of VC Michael Spence to fire 350 staff. 2013 has been marked by the NTEU and CPSU industrial dispute; with students linking arms with staff to ensure them better wages, conditions and job security

There comes a point, however, when the need to reflect becomes necessary. Problematically, participating in industrial action is increasingly underpinned by the threat of violence- more injuries, more arrests. Already this process is marring livelihoods of picketers with expensive (fines and barrister costs) and elongated court cases swallowing up time and even hopes of their future. I think it is important at this point in time to reflect WHY are we throwing ourselves in front of cars and police with guns and WHAT is it that we are trying to defend.

Across Australia, universities have been engaged in similar struggles with staff to rally against cuts to courses, degrees and staff. Interestingly there are also three well-established Free Schools: in Brisbane, the University of Wollongong and the University of Melbourne. Each of these starts from a point of defence- against the user-pays, outcome based (whether career or degree), and hierarchical (by subject, by constant rankings on tests etc.)- Form of education, which characterizes the neoliberal university. However it is important to note that they are also a form of offense insofar that they offer an alternative platform to learn which is free, accessible, and not bound by course curriculums and constant testing.

It offers its participants an unmediated form of education. Learning for education’s sake and not as a means to an end. I think one way in which to deepen the bonds between staff and student is to realize what is this university that we are trying to defend. More so it is important to note that there has been no ‘golden age’ of the university – it has never been an institution in the common interest. So I think its time that Sydney starts capitalizing on the current context of political unrest, of the whittling away of barriers between staff and students and the camaraderie on the picket line that unites those for a cause and against management (economic) and police violence. By establishing collective strength and rejecting the binary inherent to the profit driven model of higher education, integrated student/staff/faculty groups and actions can effectively organize towards an alternative non-market paradigm of education. If you are interested in getting involved in starting up a free school at Sydney University please contact


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