Opinion //

We must oppose university cuts

On opposing university cuts in the face of austerity measures.

University staff and students are facing the fight of our lives to defend higher education against rabid cuts, job losses and restructuring precipitated by the COVID-19 crisis. We must not accept any compromise with university management and the government, and instead demand that they shoulder the burden of bailing out higher education. This is the only way to preserve the quality of our education whilst defending staff jobs, wages and conditions in the sector.

For decades the university system has operated by hyper-exploiting international students, who are forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars in exorbitant annual fees. This model has been destroyed by the COVID-19 crisis and will be unsalvageable in its aftermath. Grappling with a catastrophic collapse in revenue, which modest estimates from the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) put at a minimum of $5 billion in losses nationally for this year, vice chancellors are out for blood. In this context, only an immediate transition away from a user-pays model to full public funding and the abolition of fees can defend staff and students alike. The bosses’ alternative is savage cuts and stratospheric fee hikes.

University managements are vicious at the best of times, but this crisis has taken their actions to new lows. Almost as soon as the semester began, vice chancellors had already started implementing austerity measures on staff and students to try and recover lost revenue. At Sydney University, this has seen a series of attacks including mass layoffs of casual staff, a freeze on new hiring, increased workloads for admin staff, teachers forced to rewrite entire courses for online consumption in a matter of days, and attempts to introduce labour hire in student admin services to undercut wages.  The response of the University of Tasmania, which has culled the number of available courses from 514 to 120, with only the most profitable remaining, is a worrying signal of future trends.

As the crisis drags on, managements are now waging a nationally coordinated, full-frontal attack on staff across the sector. Universities Australia, the organisation which represents university bosses, is already threatening mass sackings, claiming that at least 21,000 workers will lose their jobs. One possible ‘solution’ that has been thrown around in discussions to recoup the shortfall could be that staff only work 0.8 FTE hours, something which would result in a net 20% reduction in take-home pay. Hardly a solution for staff. Over the last few years, universities have been  battlegrounds for a systematic neoliberal offensive. The current breakneck acceleration of this process threatens to irreparably damage higher education unless we stop it in its tracks.

In the face of these unprecedented attacks, the national leadership of the NTEU has rolled over with barely a whimper of protest. In an email sent to the national membership by NTEU National Secretary Matt McGowan, the union unveiled their ‘strategy’: trading away pay rates and conditions won over generations of battles, in exchange for “job security.” McGowan’s email neglects to mention casual workers, tens of thousands of whom have already been laid off across the sector. The failure to even mention the most precarious workers in the sector suggests that the rationale of job security simply obscures a far deeper-seated reluctance to fight on the part of the national leadership, a surrender that would spell disaster for higher education. 

Within the union, this strategy of throwing away hard-won wages and conditions has sparked fury from members, who see the strategy outlined by McGowan as both defeatist and undemocratic, due to the lack of consultation with members before concessions were made. Summarising the anger, Sydney University NTEU activist Alma Torlakovic wrote: “The NTEU National Office have responded in a highly undemocratic and defeatist way. They have flagged they are willing to sacrifice our hard-won pay and conditions during secret negotiations with government and university bosses, in exchange for job security, something the bosses and the sector cannot be kept to. This strategy has been decided on without any fight and without any member input. It is a disgrace.”

But anger is being turned into action. Drawing on a healthy tradition of union activism that saw strike campaigns in 2013 and 2017, the Sydney University branch of the NTEU censured the national leadership and pledged to fight on, in a landmark motion voted up by members 117 to 2. “The motion condemned the politics of giving up without a fight,” Torlakovic said. “It was rank and file members taking initiative and calling out the national leadership.” Following the Sydney University staff’s lead, the censure motion is now being moved in union branches across the country, and hundreds nationwide have signed on to a defiant public statement rejecting the national leadership’s approach. Members are preparing a campaign to vote ‘no’ to any compromise deal that the union leaders try to garner approval for. 

Students have a direct stake in supporting this staff campaign. As the slogan goes, ‘staff working conditions are student learning conditions.’ This is as true as it has ever been. In the short term, honours students have already seen supervisors laid off overnight. We’ve had classes rushed online with totally inadequate preparation, and we are expected to pay the same fees. Student services are totally overrun, and staff shortages mean an increasingly dysfunctional bureaucracy for students to navigate. International students have been particularly hard hit, and face very difficult circumstances without any social safety net. In the long term, we can only expect this to get worse. And there’s certainly no reason that the same logic that argues staff should work harder for less pay won’t be applied to students, in the form of paying higher fees for a degraded education.

The package announced by Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan over the weekend is a farce in comparison. Even the bosses acknowledge this, with Universities Australia chair Deborah Terry claiming that there “is nowhere near enough” in it to cover gaping revenue losses, qualifying this by saying that the bosses were doing their bit by “already cutting costs across the board.” So pathetic is the scope of this ‘rescue package’ that under the scheme, one in six staff will still lose their job. Universities remain excluded from the JobKeeper program, which despite serious flaws could help keep workers paid through the health crisis.

It’s not as if there’s no money in the system for higher education. In a few short weeks we’ve seen Scott Morrison throw hundreds of billions at corporations. There’s no reason this couldn’t go to bailing out staff and students instead. Even short of this, universities are wealthy institutions in their own rights. In 2017, Sydney University had $432million in reserves and according to the 2018 annual report, the University holds more than $1.5 billion in investments, that bring in an annual income of over $135 million. In the short term, university managements can and should be forced to pay for this crisis out of their own pocket. 

Rather than rolling over, students and staff must refuse to pay a single cent to bail out the bosses. Any concession made to management or the government, be it on jobs, wages, conditions or fees, will hurt the quality of education and mean that ordinary students and staff shoulder the burden of this crisis. Instead, we must demand that the bosses pay, and squarely lay the blame on the exploitative user-pays model that has made them hundreds of millions in profits over the last few decades.

If you wish to get involved in the campaign, NTEU activists have asked for union members to support them by signing this statement.

You can also follow the Education Action Group page.