Responding to crisis and the future of university organising

Situating the crisis within Australian universities and analysing our responses to it.

In a year marked by Covid, it seems relevant that our last feature article this year analyses how the pandemic has played out within the Australian university sector, and how we have and should be responding to what is a national crisis, with variegated manifestations across campuses. The mainstream narrative has attempted to isolate the pandemic discretely, often buying into managerial rhetoric regarding the unfortunate necessity of staff and course cuts, yet properly grappling with this crisis requires a historically situated and holistic approach. 

Whilst the pandemic has weakened universities, the coronavirus has not infected a healthy higher education sector from within, but further exposed its vulnerabilities and accelerated the system’s decline. Of course, it has given ‘crisis cover’ to university managements to pursue austerity measures, alongside a Coalition Federal Government hellbent on remaking the higher education sector.

How did we get here?

The government refused to extend JobKeeper to public universities, even changing the scheme a third time, following Sydney University’s brief eligibility and use. Further, the LNP’s “relief package” announced in April included an already budgeted for $18billion for domestic students regardless of higher education enrolment numbers and provided no targeted welfare measures for international students. So, why did the government deliberately exclude universities from the supplement, and only offer measly crumbs?

The Coalition has a longstanding record of attacking the university sector. John Howard, as Liberal opposition leader, established the Coalition’s “waste watch” committee in 1986 to track what was deemed as unnecessary spending. This opposition to university research was again seen in 2018 when then Education Minister Simon Birmingham personally intervened to secretly reject Australian Research Centre grants in the humanities. Much of conservative opposition to universities appears to be ideological — from attempts to deregulate the university sector in 2014, to the manufactured free speech crisis at universities where the French Review found campus freedom of speech to not be under threat

The Ramsay Centre’s attempts — some successful, some unsuccessful — to set up Western Civilisation degrees on campuses also had the LNP’s fingerprints all over it. Chaired by John Howard, counting Tony Abbott as a board member, and set up by Paul Ramsay, the biggest individual donor to the Liberals, the Centre functions as a political project motivated by a belief in Western supremacy, and the desire to instil this vision within the public university sector, seen as too left-wing and anti-Western.

This year, the LNP also passed their “Job-ready Graduates Package” with support from the Centre Alliance. The measure, more than doubles the cost of humanities degrees, lowers the cost of degrees including: maths, science, engineering and teaching, and is largely underpinned by a culture-wars-opposition to the humanities. The policy effectively sees the student contribution rise from 42 per cent to 52 per cent, and ironically, also makes STEM students worse off, as explained by USyd’s Gareth Bryant. However, the ALP cannot be let off the hook when interrogating Australia’s university crisis. Despite introducing free education under the Whitlam government, the ALP set the groundwork for the neoliberalisation of universities with the “Dawkins Revolution”, and replaced free education with the HECS system. Additionally, the Gillard government uncapped the number of places universities could offer students, without increasing funding. Contextually, Australia’s public investment in tertiary education is also low when compared to similar economies. Australian students pay higher fees than those in most similar OECD countries.

Over the past three decades, casualised employment has ballooned, with up to 70 per cent of staff at some universities precariously employed. Wages paid to casuals typically do not encapsulate the amount of work staff are required to do, either because their rates do not reflect what is mandated in Enterprise Agreements or because such rates do not actually translate to the hours worked in performing contracted tasks. Currently ten universities have been forced to repay unpaid wages owed to casual staff, including almost $9million at USyd alone. 

The NTEU’s response

Given this crisis was decades in the making, the pandemic left the sector especially exposed. Universities had adapted somewhat to decreased government funding and support via casualisation, wage theft and revenue raising from international students, though this income dried up in large part as a result of border closures, in tandem with inadequate government support.

In response to the pandemic’s additional burden on the sector, the senior leadership of the NTEU negotiated the Jobs Protection Framework (JPF) with Vice-Chancellors, represented by the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association. At its core, the JPF (an opt-in agreement), was a concessionary strategy which sought to trade decreases in pay and conditions (including wage cuts of up to 15 per cent) in exchange for a nominal commitment from university managements to save jobs. 

Theoretically, the JPF would save 12,000 of the 30,000 jobs estimated to be lost. The NTEU’s strategy was for individual branches to vote in favour of the agreement, and if their respective university managements agreed, negotiations would begin in officially changing existing union branch agreements with universities. Ultimately, the proposal was deficient, and arguably illogical insofar as it represented bosses and an organisation meant to represent workers coalesced around the logics of austerity and implementing cuts. Accordingly, the agreement was premised on the notion that the crisis had to be shouldered by students and staff. There have been some apt comparisons made between the JPF and the ALP-ACTU Accord. Whilst the Accord and the JPF are by no means indistinguishable, both shift the terrain in fighting for better wages and conditions from the grassroots level to the officialdom level via bureaucratic mechanisms.

The JPF has been resoundingly defeated as a national project. National NTEU President Alison Barnes told Honi the agreement failed because: “it would have required universities to be financially transparent”, pinning it on Vice-Chancellors “walking away from any accountability or any pressure to actually open their books and make their finances clear.” She also characterised the agreement as a “tactic designed to save jobs.” This comes off as a somewhat unsatisfactory answer given the agreement was negotiated with four Vice-Chancellors in the first place. Importantly, there was also no membership consultation in drafting the agreement. Unsurprisingly, the framework was met with widespread opposition from the rank-and-file. Whilst Barnes acknowledged there was resistance to the framework (“anything that you design is going to attract criticism”), she dismissed pushback as a key reason for the failure of the framework. “When push comes to shove, it was really the Vice-Chancellors,” she explained.

On whether she thought pursuing a concessionary approach in the JPF early on would set campuses back during enterprise bargaining agreements fast approaching, she was resolute. “I don’t think that at all. I think we have to focus on bargaining…building our membership and being prepared.” NTEU membership has increased this year, and is the highest it has ever been, which Barnes touts as a success. This is in part because of the three month fee waiver the union offered casual workers towards the beginning of the pandemic, though Barnes notes growth “across all sections of the membership.” However, the National President also stressed the importance of building density across campuses. Addressing the NTEU’s successes, she highlighted being one of the first unions to secure paid pandemic leave, including for casuals, along with significant engagement with the “Fund Uni Fairly” campaign.

Yet, many remain unsatisfied with the Union leadership’s approach.

The rise of new networks

Given the JPF was negotiated without members’ consultation, there was considerable backlash when the deal became public. NTEU Fightback formed soon in response, and was central to organising the “vote no” campaign around the framework. The group has local origins, beginning at Sydney University. Professional staff member, Alma Torlakovic, in collaboration with other activists successfully moved a motion condemning the national leadership’s approach at a USyd branch meeting. 

Melbourne University and RMIT also voted against the JPF before details emerged. It is no surprise then that these universities are understood to have the highest density nationwide. At USyd in particular, the dispute over a second strike in 2017, and the contested 2018 NTEU elections showed there was potential to “organise outside the regular structures within the Union,” NTEU member and Senior Lecturer in History David Brophy explains. 

Rank-and-file members, especially from these three campuses began informal discussions on resisting the framework via social media. However, after approximately a fortnight, Honi understands there were divergent views regarding the structure of, what was at this point, a loose assemblage of left-wing union activists, set to become something more coherent, formal and public. Two groups emerged — Fightback, with a more disciplined and centralised organising approach, led by Socialist Alternative, and NHEAN (National Higher Education Network), a more non-hierarchical and pluralistic network. Significantly, NHEAN also voted in favour of unprotected industrial action, with Nick Riemer telling the Sydney Morning Herald: “Our motion commits us to the goal of ‘making democratically planned unprotected industrial action possible.”

On the success of the “vote no” campaign, Torlakovic told Honi: “There were eight campuses in the end out of forty across Australia, that the officials managed to push some kind of framework, because of weaker opposition at those places.”

Ultimately, NHEAN and Fightback are similar, emerging in opposition to the JPF and characterised by desires for more militant unionism. Speaking to members from both, there was one main distinction — the strategic relation to union officials. Whilst both broadly understand officials as often preferring to mediate, over agitate, and view them as generally less militant than the rank-and-file, engaging with such officials is a point of contention. For example, regarding the National Day of Action — a car convoy to Liberal Party headquarters aimed at the Federal Government — a NHEAN member told Honi that the day was perhaps not the time to “have slogans about the JPF highlighted on your material.” “Maybe you want people to come out to the rally that don’t know where they stand yet.” Contrastingly, Fightback thought endorsement of the event from more militant members gave left cover to the concessionary approach.

Both have condemned issues of transparency within the union or examples of officials’ alleged or demonstrated intervention. Fightback publicly rebuked the National Council’s recent vote (71-41) to not reinstate delegate access to lists of members in local areas. Honi understands this was revoked in light of the JPF debate, and that prior to this year there were no issues in elected representatives gaining access to lists. Whilst not a public statement, a post in NHEAN’s organising group — with over a thousand members — alleges that NSW NTEU Secretary Michael Thomson intervened in a panel NHEAN was set to host, which included an MUA organiser, on the possibilities of industrial action. “Michael said that doing so would represent an endorsement by the MUA of NHEAN over the elected leadership of the NTEU.”

In addressing opposition to the JPF, Barnes spoke positively — “The union should be able to embrace debate.” Though such debate seems to not extend to union staff. In an email dated May 19 seen by Honi, National General Secretary Matthew McGowan said:

Branches of the Union have no separate legal personality and may not overturn the decisions of the National Executive. To be clear, this means that Branch resources including staff should not be used for the circulation of materials hostile to the Union’s adopted position. Union members who are not staff are entitled to campaign individually howsoever they wish, but union resources are not to be used to campaign against the Union’s own position or decision.

The email was sent on the same day USyd Branch President Kurt Iveson came out publicly against the framework.

In addition to Fightback and NHEAN, campuses have seen the proliferation of casuals organising. Whilst almost always union members, casuals networks operate autonomously in decision-making processes. In attributing the reason behind the rise of such groups, USyd Casuals Network member, Rob Boncardo puts it down to “the fragmentation of the workforce itself” and drew distinctions with groups like Fightback. “It’s really the new recruits, or the people who don’t have a background in organised left or organised union politics, even if there’s a lot of sympathy and overlap between the groups, particularly in terms of the critiques made of the JPF.” 

The USyd network recently released their interim report, which showed that 84 per cent of participants performed unpaid labour. Honi understands the network had been approached to formally join the NTEU, which has supported the group’s documentation of wage theft, though ultimately the network prefers to remain autonomous, and doesn’t want to be subsumed. The Casualised, Unemployed and Precarious Uni Workers (CUPUW) organisation, a national grouping of casuals networks around the country also formed in May this year, in a meeting called by the Monash Casuals Network. A CUPUW spokesperson told Honi: “Casuals have been left out of the discussion. We need to organise and we need to organise in solidarity with other workers in the sector.”

The role of students and student organisations 

All union members that Honi spoke to expressed the importance of student solidarity with staff — whether it was Barnes quoting the mantra of “staff working conditions being student learning conditions,” Boncardo drawing material comparisons between casual workers and students, or staff reminiscing about picket lines. From defeating fee deregulation, to mobilising against the Vietnam War, students have historically played a critical part in fighting for a better higher education, and in social movements more broadly. It’s clear that students can secure wins if they organise collectively.

However, we are in many ways dealing with more difficult circumstances than generations past – organising in a pandemic, the cost of living near campus, and the implementation of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) in 2006. Speaking on the latter, National Union of Students (NUS) President Molly Willmott tells Honi: “VSU was more than a financial move, it was a sustained campaign to destroy students mobilising.” Historian and former USyd student, Tim Briedis, who has researched student activism extensively said, “VSU served to enclose the realm of student politics, helping the richer metropolitan universities have better funded and more vibrant activist scenes. At Western Sydney University for instance, there was an active and effective left pre-VSU that was more or less entirely wiped out.”

Whilst there is little disagreement over the shared interests of students and staff, and students as active agents in the higher education struggle, as with staff there are key disagreements over strategy, the degree of militancy, and of course, the relevance of student unions. Whilst acknowledging that “having a left wing President certainly doesn’t hurt,” Briedis highlights that “students haven’t necessarily needed left wing student unions to organise effectively.” Comparatively, USyd SRC Education Officer Jack Mansell, USyd SRC President Liam Donohoe and Willmott place more emphasis on the relevance of them.

There are noticeable distinctions in their assessments of this year however. Willmott thinks that the “NUS has had one of the more successful years in recent history,” pointing to two national campaigns — “Save our Students” and the campaign against the Job-Ready Graduates Package. She counts NUS’ biggest win as the amendment to the coronavirus welfare supplement in April, and the biggest failure as failing to defeat fee hikes. Comparatively, Mansell describes the “NUS this year [as] a pretty shameful indictment on the politics of both Molly (NLS) and Lincoln (Grassroots-Independents). In the midst of an historic crisis in higher education, NUS should’ve been organising protests, meetings, actions, stunts, and taking a confrontational approach to management and the government.”

Based in Melbourne, there were certainly difficulties in NUS office bearers organising on the ground for the most part. Of course, relocation elsewhere in the country may have been feasible, though it is questionable what tangible impact a couple of paid office bearers would have in coordinating what is ostensibly a national campaign from a different city. Pertinently, both NLS and the Grassroots-Independents place importance on lobbying, so whilst a failure to organise on the ground, can in some instances be explained by the pandemic, efforts to persuade, in particular Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie (initially seemingly against the fee hikes), highlight a misstep in either NUS’ political orientation, the pair’s persuasive capabilities or both. Structural barriers also impede left-wing organising within the NUS, including a Labor Right majority on the National Executive. NUS also typically adopts a policy against paying student protesters’ fines, particularly relevant this year.

What unites Willmott, Mansell and Donohoe though is the belief that USyd has led the student fightback this year, with the campaign successfully drawing new students aside from established campus activists. Willmott attributes this to “a culture of on the ground militant activism which doesn’t exist in a lot of places.” Mansell, meanwhile, says USyd has “the best campus activist culture,” in addition to “a solid rank-and-file” union and “the biggest revolutionary socialist club in the country.”

Donohoe describes USyd’s dominance as a “complex confluence” of various factors. He posits that USyd is “pretty much the only campus where a genuinely activist left controls the student union relatively uninhibited.” He also mentions the considerable presence of Grassroots, Solidarity and Socialist Alternative, in addition to many unaligned people with left wing views. Further, he motions to the University’s Political Economy Department, the campus’ history in attracting more left-wing people, and finally the SRC’s traditional structure, which, compared to other campus unions, gives students more resources and allows for a more activist orientation.

USyd students have consistently mobilised in actions against the government and management, accumulating the overwhelming majority of the $54,000 in fines at protests. Students have borne the brunt of police brutality, taken to City Road on more than one occasion, occupied F23 — the University Administration building, defied the Public Health Act, and have certainly played an integral part in the NSW Government’s decision to allow protests of up to 500 people. Speaking on this, Donohoe says USyd students have shown themselves to be “really brave,” quickly “becoming used to repressive organising conditions.” “People have so much more confidence, like taking City Road willy nilly, which people used to never do.”

Where to from here?

In assessing the path forward, there are no easy answers. Many unionists Honi spoke to highlighted Jane McAlevey’s “deep organising” approach, and most staff and students alike believe strike action looms, though conditions are precarious. However, in transforming our university sector into one which benefits society at large, what a former USyd NTEU organiser says rings true: “The only people who are capable of doing that are the people who work at universities. No one else is going to do it. If it’s not the people who work in them, it’s going to be the managerial forces that control them currently. It’s incumbent on the people working within universities to do it not just for themselves, and their fucking pay packets, but for the whole of society.”

In what will be my last ever print article for Honi as an editor, I hope I can return to the Fisher Library archives (in the hopefully not too distant future), look back on this piece fondly and see a truly democratic university.