Cuts an ‘issue for the entire city’

Staff are not the only ones who will suffer from the impending cuts at the University of Otago, a newly formed "three pronged" protest group warns.

The Protect Otago Action Group — a collaboration between staff, students and community members — is set to hold its first rally at the university tomorrow.

Community representative Tyler West said while staff would be the first casualty, the loss of several hundred jobs would be felt throughout Dunedin, as it was ultimately a university town.

"This is the largest employer in the city. Because of that, I think the wider city should be deeply concerned.

"This isn’t just an issue for students and staff. We’re really focused on this three-pronged idea because this is an issue for the entire city."

This follows the university’s announcement last month that it faced a $60 million budget deficit and potentially several hundred staff would be cut.

A protest rally held earlier this month by the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) drew hundreds of participants, and Mr West said some TEU members had also attended the new group’s meetings and expressed support.

It was seeking to work with staff and student unions, and representatives from those unions were likely to be among the speakers at the protest.

The Protect Otago Action Group was a campaigning body everybody could contribute too.

There had been attempts at a unified approach before, but the scale of the cuts was what had spurred people to action this time, he said.

Protect Otago Action Group members Tyler West and Rhona Aran prepare to protest University of...
Protect Otago Action Group members Tyler West and Rhona Aran prepare to protest University of Otago staff cuts they warn will also impact students and the wider community. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
So far the group had a core group of around 25, but was still in early days and there was positive movement.

"Even if we get just a few hundred people, that’s a start — we’re treating this as the beginning.

"We’re going to keep doing this until we get some significant change in direction from the university bigwigs."

Timed to take place before exams, the protest would be followed by other events and in semester two.

Student representative Rhona Aran said one of the aims of the protest was to raise awareness of what was happening, as she believed some students might not have been paying much attention.

However, they also stood to lose from large-scale cuts, especially as the courses offered by the university could be scaled back.

"It is something that will affect tertiary education in New Zealand, and the opportunities for young people.

"What concerns me the most is the restructuring of degrees, potentially limiting the education future students will access, and also a potential fee increase if that is where the money is needed to come from."

Students also had the ability to protest, whereas staff might feel held back from taking public action by concern about their jobs.

The protest would start at noon at the union lawn, and she hoped for a big turnout.

"I think its really important students are the ones sticking their necks out for this."

University acting vice-chancellor Prof Helen Nicholson said the university was "very much aware" the detrimental impact of cuts in staff would be felt not only by staff but by students and the wider Otago community.

A number of options were being considered as to how the university would make savings, but it was unlikely this could be achieved without reducing staff numbers, she said.