4 Feb 2013

Sandstone Academics Up Against The Wall

By Nick Riemer
Sydney Uni is making the most militant attack yet on academics' conditions. Industrial action is on the cards but many in the sector fear even more savage market reforms under the Coalition, writes Nick Riemer
Of all the arenas prey to neoliberal reforms, few have witnessed such extensive transformation in recent decades as universities.

Withdrawal of government funding; cuts to courses, most recently at La Trobe and Monash; swollen tutorials; less face-to-face teaching; the embrace of competition as the governing principle of academic life; an ever-tightening bureaucratic stranglehold; an obsession with league tables; anti-democratic reforms to university councils; the triumph of dollar value as the measure of all things; breakneck campaigns of cuts and austerity — these developments have transformed universities throughout the country.

Fundamental changes to the conditions of academic labour have naturally been an integral part of this process. Teaching has been massively casualised: the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) notes that less than 36 per cent of university employees are on permanent contracts — about the same proportion as in retail (40 per cent) — and that more than half of Australian undergraduate teaching is by casuals.

Where academics were once treated as autonomous, responsible and highly trained professionals, their working lives are now subject to arbitrary and counterproductive regimes of control, reward and punishment, with scant connection at best to the serious demands of pedagogy or scholarship.

There was a time when university heads must have seen themselves as merely responsible for the after-sales service for government cuts. Then, they mainly acted on Jean Cocteau's principle: "Since these mysteries are beyond us, let's pretend to be their organisers".

Now, having internalised the values behind the most hackneyed critiques of academics, they can be trusted to put the squeeze on their institutions themselves.

And it never ends. Staff at the University of Sydney are still battered from management's 2011-12 job cuts, in which hundreds of academics were forced to make a case for the retention of their current positions because they did not meet a new and ad hoc research performance standard invented simply for the purposes of shedding staff.

The cuts raised a local and international outcry. In what was doubtless the most international publicity the University of Sydney had ever received, researchers around the world expressed incredulity that academics could be evaluated in such an unjust and cretinous way. Staff and students waged the most vocal series of campus demonstrations recently seen.

International campaigns were coordinated to save distinguished researchers. Petitions against the cuts gained thousands of signatures. The NTEU bought time by forcing the university through Fair Work Australia into consultations.

As a result of this resistance, management was able to lose fewer staff than it had originally planned. It is therefore no surprise that it has now transferred its downsizing ambitions to the bargaining over the new Enterprise Agreement, the contract governing the conditions under which university employees work.

When, after months of stalling, management finally put forward its own draft agreement in December, it became clear that the job cuts had only been an amuse-bouche for a much more comprehensive attack on staff conditions.

As embodied in the draft agreement, the university's plans are a blueprint for a managerial El Dorado of cheaper, more casualised, less unionised, more precarious and less protected staff.

Management's wish list includes the following measures: liberalisation of its "managing change" provisions, which would leave it with an even freer hand to carry through more job cuts when it chooses; the abolition of the expectation that 40 per cent of academics' time will be spent on research; the slashing of sick leave entitlements by 60 per cent; the removal of the guarantee that no more than 5 per cent of a faculty's teaching will be casualised; the abolition of classification protections that prevent general (non-academic) staff from being required to do work at a higher level than they are paid for; the abolition of the review committees which currently provide an avenue of appeal and scrutiny over management decisions; the removal of the NTEU from future Enterprise Agreement negotiations; the abolition of any reference to anti-discriminatory employment practices; and the offer of a salary increase (2 per cent) that doesn't even keep up with inflation (currently 2.2 per cent).

According to old hands, these proposals constitute the most militant attack ever on conditions in an Australian university. If the enterprise agreement is adopted, staff will have even fewer protections when management next decides it has got the budget wrong and wants to lighten its salary load.

Academics' ability to undertake research will be curtailed because the proportion of teaching in their workloads will increase. Casualisation will spread, with even more classes taught by precarious and inexperienced postgrads, forced into paid employment in order to supplement the pitiful government research scholarship, currently at a rate below the Henderson poverty line.

The NTEU, the only democratic organisation on campus representing staff interests, will be sidelined. In a further attack on employees' ability to effectively defend themselves, the university has excised from the proposed EA its previous commitment to academic freedom, which expressly recognises staff's right to "express opinions about the operation of the University", even unpopular or controversial ones.

The disappearance of these clauses betrays a scandalous hostility to rational debate and institutional self-criticism, principles which universities, of all places, should foster. This signals worrying consequences for employees who choose to exercise their right to express views on how the university is being run.

The university's draft agreement is an unapologetic charter for a new era of managerial radicalism. It is deplorable that the university's management should be on the warpath against its own staff, and against the interests of the institution, in this way.

No one can claim that the current managerial ascendancy in academia is needed to underwrite universities' effectiveness in a changing world. While affecting a hard-nosed, no-nonsense competence, university managers have demonstrated a signal failure to run their institutions properly.

Expenditure is lavished on marketing and landscaping while research and teaching are starved. Senior administrative roles are legion, but elementary administrative functions are botched: last year's Sydney job cuts resulted from management's failure, alone among Australian universities, to predict a fall in income from international students. Since then, the university has gone spectacularly over budget in its new student admissions system.

As I have suggested elsewhere, the managerial stranglehold over academia shows striking parallels to the disastrous financialisation of the world economy. The neoliberal superintendents of the new academic order are, in their little world, just as detrimental to the public interest as the high priests of Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs.

An occupational hazard of university employment is the propensity to be impressed by subtle arguments more than by good ones. There will be no shortage of subtle arguments as Sydney management tries to push through its proposed EA, accompanied, no doubt, by the strong whiff of asceticism and holier-than-thou paternalism typical of senior university managers these days.

Sydney's negotiations fall near the beginning of the current national round of enterprise bargaining. Management getting its way at Sydney will be bad news for staff and students throughout the country.

An Abbott victory in September will trigger predictable — though private — ritual laments from many vice chancellors. These will surely largely be for form. The free hand bestowed on universities by Coalition IR policies will be Christmas for university managers, and staff and students will pay dearly. Sydney management getting its proposed EA will signal that it's already time to start decorating the tree.

Nick Riemer is on the branch committee of the NTEU at Sydney. These are his personal views. 

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This user is a New Matilda supporter. NewsGooJake
Posted Monday, February 4, 2013 - 13:08

The proposal to rescind the intellectual freedom clause is particularly worrying. When I came under attack by the Australian late last year, over my and my Centre's support for an academic boycott of Israel, the University of Sydney handed the paper a personal email, addressed to me from the Dean of Arts and Social Sciences, and told its reporter that managers had deemed my views to be 'inappropriate'.

I obtained a retraction, and public affirmation of my right to free expression, thanks both to the personal commitment of the Dean himself to those values, and to the protection offered by the Enterprise Agreement. The present EA makes clear that it is not for the University to decide whether my views are appropriate or not, as long as they are offered in a responsible fashion, with reference to my established research expertise, and clearly labeled as my own.

Without this protection, it is no exaggeration to say that we risk the limits of acceptability, in academics' contributions to the public sphere, being effectively hived off to the Murdoch press. And that would represent a significant diminution of the integrity of public debate.

Jake Lynch, Director, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney

Posted Monday, February 4, 2013 - 13:43

"Casualisation will spread, with even more classes taught by precarious and inexperienced postgrads..."

I would like to add that many of the people undertaking casual/sesssional tutoring and lecturing already have a PhD because of the lack of ongoing positions in the Humanities and other cash-strapped disciplines. Many people become caught in the trap of sessional teaching work for years and even decades. (I did a study on sessional employment at one university, and one sessional had received an award for 15 years of service!) It can be argued that PhD students need casual teaching work to learn to teach and help their career prospects, but post PhDs are being used semester in and semester out for years without being given any continuity or chances at career advancement. They're also doing their research in their own time and using their own funds to keep up with conferences and so on. Why are more people being enrolled in PhDs when universities are becoming less and less willing to provide job pathways for them?

Posted Monday, February 4, 2013 - 17:13

What a disgrace - but I presume that the US- funded United States Study Centre (or should it be Center?) at the University of Sydney will be exempt from the long knives.

Today I finished reviewing "Australian Universities. A portrait of decline" by Dr Donald Meyers, a must-read book for all formerly or presently associated with universities (see "Review: "Australian Universities. A portrait of decline" - protect free speech", Bellaciao, 4 February 2013: http://bellaciao.org/en/spip.php?article22413 ; see also Dr Richard Hil's simialry excellent book "Whackademia", for review see Gideon Polya, “Book Review: “Whackademia” reveals parlous state of Australia 's censored, under-funded & dumbing-down universities”, Countercurrents, 14 December 2012: http://www.countercurrents.org/polya141212.htm ).

QUOTES: "The world is running out of time to deal intelligently with the worsening climate crisis, the associated biodiversity, population and poverty crises, and the doomsday shadow of nuclear weapons. Currently dominant greed- and market-obsessed neoliberalism in the Western Murdochracies, Lobbyocracies and Corporatocracies has sidelined the intelligentsia crucial for what may be the coming last stand for most of Humanity.

This perversion is no better illustrated in prosperous, democratic Australia where destructive, anti-intellectual mangerialism and corporatism have taken over Australian universities in an obscene collaboration between neoliberal governments and bloated, self-interested university bureaucracies.

This sad reality is described in “Australian universities. A Portrait of Decline” by Donald Meyers (AUPOD), an important and hard-hitting book by an Australian neuroscientist and environmental scientist who argues passionately, cogently and with biting irony for a return to decency of a corrupted, dumbing-down, and managerialist Australian university system...

One key reality barely mentioned in the book (see p177) is that over 50% of undergraduate teaching in Australian universities is now done by casual staff . Just one (1) non-researching, non-teaching Vice Chancellor on $1 million per annum plus perks earns the same before tax as one hundred (100) casual academic teachers crucial for the teaching and research job of universities but earning only about $10,000 each per annum. The present system cannot surely continue when such absurd inequities are made public. An eminent academic friend suggests that VCs should earn no more than a professorial salary....

Again, about a dozen years ago I presented and thence published a detailed analysis of free speech in Australian universities ( (Gideon Polya, “Current academic censorship and self-censorship in Australian universities”, Public University Journal, volume 1, Conference Supplement, “Transforming the Australia University”, Melbourne, 9-10 December 2001: http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/57092/20080218-1150/www.publicuni.org/jrnl... ; see also ). My final recommendation was that “Finally, we should publicly insist that universities that constrain free speech are not fit for our children”. END QUOTES.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s the British academic world was outraged by the unfair dismissal of philosopher Professor Sydney Sparkes Orr from the University of Tasmania (for a book by academic insiders see the "Dreyfus in Australia" by John Bela Polya and Robert Solomon) and an international black ban was placed on the emptied Chair of Philosophy - the anti-free speech University of Sydney should face similar international censure.

What overseas students, especially from Asian, African, Latin American and Muslim countries, would want to study in a gutter, genocidal US- and genocidal Apartheid Israel-linked university like Sydney "University" (see "Australian Universities Complicit With Pro-Zionist Censorship
And Genocidal Israeli Militarism", Countercurrents, 24 May 2012: http://www.countercurrents.org/polya240512.htm ) that bullies and constrains the free speech of its academic staff?

Peace is the only way but Silence kills and Silence is complicity.

Posted Monday, February 4, 2013 - 19:23

The extensive landscaping renovations that now connect the road down from the Quadrangle to the path up from Broadway are symbolic of the era.
The landscaping involves crude cinder bricks, covered with a thin layer of 'authentic' sandstone.
That sums up the current situation at Sydney Uni.
Show is more important than substance. In the meantime, the place rots from the top down.
In retrospect, the decade of the Vice-Chancellorship of the conservative historian John Manning Ward (the 1980s), who retained an academic mentality in the job by contrast with his successors, looks like a plateau beyond which it has all been downhill. Ironies of ironies.
Of course, Ward's decade coincided with a democratised governance structure, the object of attack from above ever since.
The Faustian bargains of the crowd at the top are de rigueur; too unsavoury to be observed at close range.

Posted Monday, February 4, 2013 - 22:33

All this under a Labor government. And while the local branches struggle with overfunded university IR departments with all the muscle and time in the world, the national NTEU has I'm afraid been seriously missing in action for over a decade. They should have cut their cosy ties with Labor years ago and really put up a fight. I wish the local branches all the best in this, but until the national NTEU gets that academic work (it has been completely lost on working conditions, despite the rhetoric) is not the same as other kinds of work, and puts up a real struggle, and probably until the Labor become again a party worthy of the name, this is going to be a very difficult struggle. Simply put, academics need a strong union, but after 30 years of being involved with it, I'm not convinced the NTEU is it. I say this with full support for the Sydney branch, which has struggled valiantly over the past few years.

Posted Tuesday, February 5, 2013 - 14:30

Don't discount allies on the administration side of the fence. Some of us are equally aghast at the ascendancy of ideological managerialism as our academic colleagues.

In the end it gets in the way of high quality useful management. The same belligerence strip-mines our resources and degrades our ability to provide the support and services lecturers and researchers and students need.

Posted Tuesday, February 5, 2013 - 14:30

Don't discount allies on the administration side of the fence. Some of us are equally aghast at the ascendancy of ideological managerialism as our academic colleagues.

In the end it gets in the way of high quality useful management. The same belligerence strip-mines our resources and degrades our ability to provide the support and services lecturers and researchers and students need.

Posted Tuesday, February 5, 2013 - 15:08

The ascendency of managerial is truly awful and destructive.

And off topic: Nick are you related to Andrew Riemer. He was one of my better lecturers in English literature many decades ago.

Enlightenment Guy
Posted Tuesday, February 5, 2013 - 19:58

To some degree the degeneration of higher education has been aided and abetted by academics either through implementing managerial paradigms or failing to resist them. Both the complicity and the failure of resistance needs to be explained and understood. Certainly its an uncomfortable topic and while we might not want to engage in this kind of self-analysis due to that discomfort its certainly something that we need to do.

Posted Tuesday, February 5, 2013 - 21:51

'While affecting a hard-nosed, no-nonsense competence, university managers have demonstrated a signal failure to run their institutions properly.'

Don't forget the UWS economics department just took a merciless slashing, a couple weeks before they announce free iPads for students to the tune of what was it, 30million?! Let's cut our academic offering and entice the kiddies with shiny new toys. A fat bonus to the executives who came up with that one... Those poor people who got the chop there - to turn around and read in the paper about the iPads - my heart sincerely goes out to them.

It's got to be about union struggle now? The ideologues in management have got to be determined to prove the old adage true again: you can always trust the centres of power to by a radicalising force. For years I've wanted to work in this world, for years I've been put off by these disturbing trends - and yet I wish I were there to take part in this fight.

Anything the general public can do - let us know.

Enlightenment Guy
Posted Wednesday, February 6, 2013 - 10:07

I would also agree with one of the earlier comments in regard to the recruitment of graduate students into PhD and other graduate programs: In many disciplines students do this with the idea that they can then move into an academic job - students must be informed prior to making any commitment to graduate work that the chances of their moving into an academic position are extremely limited. In some areas and in some disciplines its absolutely unethical to promote graduate education.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. Anne Picot
Posted Wednesday, February 6, 2013 - 10:12

Sadly Nick's article does not exaggerate. The management's draft agreement is quite extraordinary in both the scale of attacks and the breadth. One thing which the current senior management does not grasp is the extent to which the University operates on the goodwill of the staff, general and academic. The cuts have already been severe enough for everyone involved in delivery and administration of teaching to work beyond normal hours and their own duties to ensure the work gets done. This attack will kill off the good will to the detriment of all our work. It also gives the lie to the public message of the University that the student experience is its priority and teaching is valued. It could not be clearer that neither are true.

Posted Wednesday, February 6, 2013 - 20:19

Enlightenmen Guy said " I would also agree with one of the earlier comments in regard to the recruitment of graduate students into PhD and other graduate programs: In many disciplines students do this with the idea that they can then move into an academic job - students must be informed prior to making any commitment to graduate work that the chances of their moving into an academic position are extremely limited. In some areas and in some disciplines its absolutely unethical to promote graduate education."

COULDN'T AGREE MORE The entire university system in Australia looks like a combination of McDonalds Take Aways and the politics of Oliver Cromwell as decent academics with a concept of Australian pedagogy are forced off campus to be replaced by mediocre obedience to THE DIS_EDUCATION/UNSKILLING of the Nation.

CONSIDERING the drop out rate of 50% year by year and the fact that we only end up with 1.5% academics from any graduating HSC year the situation points to a multi-racial second class labour pool surrounding the World's Largest Open Cut Mine.

How long before 150 Academics have to fight for 50 locker keys every morning? SHE/HE who gets the key gets a lecturing job for the day?

Ludicrous as that sounds that was the state of the Sydney Docks in the middle 20th century.

Furthermore if we have less academics than who gets the jobs that require post grad qualifications? 457's?

There has never been a bigger need for solidarity in this nation regardless of occupation.

The Question is how do we raise it?