Let's Work Together To Save Sydney Uni

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Sydney University staff went on strike a fortnight ago, and will down tools again in a week's time. Professor Raewyn Connell wrote this open letter during the strike on 7 March.

The Vice-Chancellor
University of Sydney

Dear Michael,

Thank you for your emails of 12 and 20 February, and Stephen Garton’s of 1 March, and Boyd Williams’ of 5 March, giving me the management’s views about the enterprise bargaining and our industrial action. In return, I will try to help you understand why a significant part of your staff are on the picket line today. I’m one of the oldest inhabitants of the village — my first job at the University of Sydney started in 1971 — I care a lot for this place, and for the people I work with.

University staff don’t take industrial action lightly. As you may know, a strike rarely has a single cause. It generally grows from a build-up of frustrations, setbacks and conflicts that result in a loss of trust in management. That is the case at the University of Sydney. It is the same in much of the Australian university system, which has become more troubled, and more tense and distrustful, than in previous generations.

Universities as employers have not made it their priority to have a secure, committed workforce. Over time, university managers have responded to funding pressures by making job insecurity grow — through outsourcing of general staff work, erosion of tenure, and above all, casualisation. Our glossy brochures don’t admit this, but around half the undergraduate teaching in Australia is now done by temporary staff.

To management, this looks like flexibility. To many of my younger colleagues, it looks like a life of precarious labour, scrabbling for short-term, part-time and totally insecure appointments. These are poor conditions for building an intellectual workforce. From an educational point of view, it means a mass of teaching done by staff who can’t build up the experience, depth of knowledge, or confident relationship with students that are needed for the very best teaching.

The full-time staff too have been under growing stress. You will be very familiar with the worsening student/staff ratios in the last generation. No pretence that we can work smarter can reduce this pressure, on both academic and general staff. The industrial relations colleagues call this “labour intensification”, and it’s a reality at the chalk face in this university.

At the same time there has been more micro-management and surveillance of how we do our jobs. The staff of this university are increasingly enmeshed in a thicket of anonymous online control systems — to document our courses, get permission to travel or to do our research, get our “performance” managed, and many other things — taking increasing slices of our time and energy. In other ways too, we have been losing autonomy in our day-to-day work. Have we agreed to these changes? In most cases we were never asked; they have simply been imposed on us.

That’s part of a broader decline of organisational democracy and self-management in the university. We don’t have any forum, or set of forums, where the problems of this university can be debated in a participatory way, with some prospect of influencing outcomes. The nearest we have is the Academic Board, where good discussions do occur, but most academic staff aren’t invited and of course non-academic staff aren’t represented. What we do have in abundance are media releases, “staff news” (comprising PR and commercial “offers”), all-staff emails from you and Stephen, threatening messages from the HR Director, even videos that you send us — in short, announcements from the management. It’s not a good substitute.

With performance management, online surveillance systems, and closed decision-making, it appears that the university authorities these days don’t really trust the staff — to know our trades, to act responsibly, or to share in running the place.

That’s an important reason for the depth of anger about the redundancies issue in 2011-12. We are grown-up people, we know universities have financial problems, we too want to work out solutions – and we know there are many ways for institutions to handle financial pressure. Instead of an invitation to work on the problems together, we saw colleagues threatened, tenure weakened, arbitrary rules imposed, and mysterious exemptions granted. And then a further round of redundancies was mishandled too. I don’t know what your original intention was; but as these events unfolded, staff saw the management behaving unpredictably, wrecking the livelihoods of valued colleagues, and undermining security for all the staff.

It’s not encouraging to see university managers across the country increasingly resembling the executives of big corporations – in pay and conditions, in language, in techniques of running an organisation, and in hard-handed approaches to the workforce. Corporate managers are an increasingly powerful, rich and selfish group in Australian society. The more that university managers integrate with them, the bigger the gulf that will open with the staff of the universities.

When it came to the enterprise bargaining then, there was a big question: would you and your colleagues recognise these growing concerns and use the enterprise bargaining to build a positive relationship with the staff, or treat it as an occasion to beat the staff and the union back? Unfortunately it was the second, and that’s basically why this strike has happened.

I’m not on the bargaining team; I follow what is happening from union report-backs, management announcements (including Ann Brewer’s welcome visit to my Faculty), and the documents. Some things have been obvious. Management wasn’t trying for a prompt agreement. When management did put proposals on the table, they weren’t proposals for improved staff conditions — they offered weakened rights and less security. I know that management contest the NTEU’s statements about this, but I’ve looked at the documents, compared management proposals with the previous enterprise agreement, and the union is right. On some points management proposed startling increases in managerial prerogative, and weakened accountability by management to staff. On a number of points the proposal erodes existing protections for staff. What management did in writing this offer was moving in exactly the wrong direction.

On the pay issue, I’m not a specialist but I do have common sense. To suggest that one of the richest universities in Australia, which you tell us in other ways is prospering, which can afford major new building works and salaries for senior staff (including me) on the current scale, will be driven broke by more than a 2 per cent wage deal for the staff — well, like Alice, I may be urged to believe six impossible things before breakfast but I can’t believe that.

I’m glad you have recognised that to drop the guarantee of intellectual freedom from the enforceable industrial agreement was a wrong move. Thank you for changing approach on that. Please look at the other issues in the same spirit.

Since the Dawkins “reforms” 25 years ago, Australian governments have tried to get an expanded university system on the cheap. The decline of public sector funding, and the bizarre doctrine that intensifying competitive pressures will make under-resourced education systems work better, are background problems we all have to cope with. But there is room to manoeuvre.

I think the most difficult thing, for your generation of university administrators, is remembering that you are running a billion-dollar institution that is not a corporation. Our staff, both academic and general, are proud to work here precisely because it’s a university. It’s concerned with the making of highly sophisticated knowledge and with the most advanced and demanding forms of education. These are the public interests for which Australian society puts resources into the university system. The staff are trying to make this happen, and a good personnel policy for a university will respect and support them. The very last thing a university needs is an intimidated and conformist workforce.

Most of us would welcome a more cooperative and respectful relationship with the university management. There are benefits for you — including benefits from a better relationship with our unions. The unions will tell you the tough stuff, the hard truths about working life in the university; and it’s in union forums that the best thinking about higher education in Australia is currently happening. It’s a funny thing, which you won’t hear from corporate advisors: for navigating the next stages of university life in this country, the unions are your best friends.

In the next few years, especially if we have an Abbott government, university managements might try to weaken the unions and casualise the workforce more. It seems some Vice-Chancellors and their advisors would like to try this — but not all. I hope that Sydney’s managerial group will follow a more intelligent path, because there is something at stake here beyond staff morale and a particular log of claims. The future character of our university system is involved.

The staff on the picket line here are the people involved in building universities for the twenty-first century, in practice as well as in imagination. We’d rather do this with your cooperation.

With best wishes,

Raewyn Connell

New Matilda

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