It doesn’t take long to become disillusioned with your university education. The promised land of stimulating intellectual debate, specialised courses and a bustling campus life are dashed against the rocks of generic mandatory first year units, online lectures and 30-person tutorials. At the same time, both Liberal and Labor federal governments have increased the cost of degrees, slapping students with the prospect of decades of student debt.
This discontent bubbles to the surface in places like the USyd Rants. Often, here, individual lecturers or tutors are blamed for the poor quality of the education we get. This is totally wrong. The causes of many of the problems at university, like in society more broadly, are structural, not the fault of individuals. Pitting students and staff against each other only preserves the power and wealth of the people at the top – university management. We have to reject these divisions if we are ever going to win a better university.
Management and their corporate model of the university are to blame for the poor quality of our education. The University of Sydney recorded a surplus last year of $1.04 billion, and yet they continue to cut courses and sack and underpay staff. Casual tutors are not paid to prepare for their tutorials, and are only paid 15 minutes per essay to mark. The odds are stacked against staff to offer a quality education.
In contrast, staff in the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) at USyd are fighting to end this. They are fighting for automatic conversion for ongoing casual staff and the reclamation of millions of dollars of wage theft. Unlike management, they are fighting to preserve the right for academics to both teach and research – how can staff provide a proper education if they are unable to stay abreast of developments or debates in their field? They are proposing union-led workload committees which can properly assess and implement the realistic amount of work a staff member could teach. Finally, they are demanding a pay rise above inflation – not only do staff deserve this, but it will mean that there will be less pressure on staff, especially casuals, to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet.
Students and staff have shared interests. We both want education that isn’t for profit, where people are afforded basic dignity (i.e. a living wage), and a good quality public education. The history of student and staff struggles, not managerial benevolence, is what has protected a huge variety of courses at the University of Sydney. For example, last year the Dean of Arts attempted to push through a change to the structure of the department, cutting dozens of courses and potentially more jobs. In opposition, staff and students worked together to save courses and jobs, with the Education Action Group holding a huge Student General Meeting which voted against the proposal.
It’s only through industrial action that workers have the ability to win. For years, staff and students have identified problems in the overwork and underpayment of the University, yet University management have indicated no interest in listening to us or changing it. The best, only and most powerful way to make management listen to us is to refuse to work for extended periods of time, stopping their ability to make profits and disrupting business as usual. Strikes and pickets are a tried and true way to win staff demands, and indicate a new path for higher education. Yes, this will mean that your class or library study is disrupted, but neither staff nor students can afford to allow management and their model of the university to win.
Staff have democratically voted to go on strike and shut down the university. If you have a complaint about the cost of university, where your money is going, or the ways a certain tutor or lecturer is coping with workloads then the strikes are not your enemy, management is.
Talk to your classmates, tutors and lecturers – you’ll likely find that we have a lot in common. Just like us, university workers are struggling to keep up with the cost of basic necessities. A win for workers at USyd will be a win for all workers. NTEU members at USyd, as well as students will be on strike on Wednesday 17 August. The best way to show solidarity to staff on 17 August is to not attend class or campus and join striking staff on the picket line.
Student contingent to the August 17 strike event: https://fb.me/e/3zwgG8TBX