“None of this austerity is justified”: Education activists hold forum amid continuing education insecurity

It is clear that the University community is frustrated, having to grapple with interminable uncertainty for their futures in academic research and learning.

Around thirty students and staff members today held a forum to envision the next steps in the fight against education cuts and the neoliberalisation of universities.

Hosted by the Education Action Group and chaired by SRC Education Officers Maddie Clark and Tom Williams, the Zoom forum featured a range of panelists and contextualised the continuing deterioration of tertiary education by profit-motivated university management.

“It’s in the name of productivity and profit that the uni bosses have spent the last 50 years transforming universities into corporate degree factories,” said SRC Social Justice Officer Eddie Stephenson, speaking to the neoliberalisation of universities. “We [the university community] want universities to be built around the pursuit of a deeper understanding of the world.”

Stephenson also noted the bipartisan history of damaging the tertiary education sector: “While it was a Liberal government that started slashing public spending on education in the wake of the 70s crisis, it was actually the Hawke government that abolished free education in 1989.”

Speaking on the Save the Arts campaign, staff member Alana Louise Bowden shed light on the preliminary phase of consultation that staff are currently undergoing in the lead up to Enterprise Agreement (EA) negotiations this year. Bowden noted that these consultations are leading to more unpaid labour from staff, increasing the number of meetings and workshops to be attended.

“We know that jobs are on the line, we know that departments are still facing closure, the Dean will not give us any concrete indication that our departments are going to be saved,” said Bowden. 

It is clear that the University community is frustrated, having to grapple with interminable uncertainty for their futures in academic research and learning. “We still don’t know what we’re facing. [We have heard that] SLAM (or the School of Literature, Art and Media) could be disbanded, and that the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies and Studies in Religion were potentially going to be closed,” said Bowden.

As staff face employment insecurity and exploitative workloads, Bowden also noted the fallacy of university management’s claims of financial pressures as they continue to target Arts and Social Sciences for funding and staff cuts. “These cuts are not grounded really in finance,” Bowden said, citing the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies, which despite running a $36m surplus continues to face threats of cuts.

Rob Boncardo of the NTEU and USyd Casuals Network also debunked management’s excuses of austerity, noting that the University operated at a surplus of over $100m in 2020, despite initial predictions of a $470m loss as a result of COVID-19. “The money is there. None of this austerity is justified,” said Boncardo.

Additionally, Boncardo noted that management are hoping to “end caps on teaching-focused roles and fixed-terms roles for professional staff.” Ending such caps would see loss of the 40:40:20 ratio, which refers to the ideal ratio of an academic’s workload of researching, teaching and administration respectively. Boncardo noted that without the 40:40:20, we would see “an indefinite explosion of work that will be put on the shoulders of staff.”

The forum is one of many examples of staff and student solidarity against education cuts. Bowden noted that there are some avenues of action that cannot be undertaken by staff, and thus the mantle falls to student activists to pick up the fight for their right to education.

In the pursuit of a university built around the idea of education as an invaluable social good, Boncardo urged forum attendees to hold out hope: “It doesn’t exist yet but it’s not impossible.”

In protest of the Financial Review’s Higher Education Summit for university management, Liberal politicians and corporate executives, students have organised an online Counter Summit on Monday 16 August at 1pm.

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