Sandstone Academics Up Against The Wall


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. 

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.