The latest attacks on tertiary education are unprecedented—thousands of jobs and hundreds of courses are slated to be slashed. USYD Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson isn’t mincing her words, “We are putting into place an austerity program.”
Vice-Chancellors across Australia are using the crisis to cut jobs and slash courses. Universities Australia have announced they expect to cut 21,000 jobs across the sector. At USYD, management is forcing through a 30 per cent cut to Arts courses to decrease costs.
The fight over uni jobs has broader implications than students’ education: it will help set the tone for workers’ resistance to the looming economic crisis. More than half of all workers are either unemployed or on Job Keeper. And unions everywhere are proposing the strategy of compromise and concession. The NTEU rank and file are putting up one of the most serious fights against this.
Uni students and workers need to unite and set an example of what kind of fight can save the jobs, stop the cuts and win the vision for a publicly funded university made for education, not profit.
Liberals and the Vice-Chancellors: two edges of the same sword.
The Liberals’ claim they cannot afford to cover the cost of the $5 billion shortfall caused by coronavirus. This is nonsense. $5 billion is a drop in the bucket compared to the $320 billion total stimulus spending. The Liberals are choosing to prioritise bailing out private profits at the expense of workers and students.
Across the board VCs pass the buck and blame the government for the austerity they are trying to implement on campus. But the Liberals and the Vice-Chancellors are two edges of the same sword.
The free, publicly funded uni enjoyed by today’s politicians was dismantled in the 80s. Funding was withdrawn and replaced by HEC debts and fees. Vice-Chancellors were transformed into high paid CEOs on a mission to squeeze profit out of staff and students. Meanwhile corporate tax was slashed from 45 per cent to less than 30 per cent.
Vice-Chancellors operate as the Liberals’ attack dogs on campus. They help to enforce the consequences of government underfunding. But they don’t stop there. The logic of a uni system infected with the logic of profit drives them to try to squeeze every last cent out of staff and students even when they can afford to weather a temporary fall in revenue like we are seeing now.
Usyd is a case in point. Usyd is a massive institution that could easily absorb revenue losses without any cuts—they have $482 million in cash reserves, plus almost $5 billion in assets that they could borrow against. According to analysis by the NTEU they have well in excess of $600 million borrowing capacity.
Yet Usyd VC Michael Spence is wielding the axe while refusing to ditch his own $1.5 million salary. Arts is facing a savage 30 per cent course cut and casuals won’t have work in Semester 2. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The uni is blatantly using Covid as a cover for cuts it wanted to make anyway. A uni spokesperson told the Sydney Morning Herald that the course and job cuts are unrelated to the coronavirus crisis, but rather are designed to make the school “operate sustainably in the medium to long term”.
Fighting for an alternative to the dysfunctional corporate uni also means a fight for every job and course here and now. We cannot allow the Liberals and Spence to sacrifice staff livelihoods and students’ education in return for the university’s balance sheets.
Students, the union and the fightback
Given the significance of the battle ahead, it is tragic that the Executive of the NTEU staff union have proposed a deeply flawed solution to the attacks: to strike a deal with the Vice-Chancellors. Their deal would see uni workers trade a 5 to 15 per cent pay cut for staff, in return for a promise that VCs limit sackings to around 9,000 jobs. The NTEU executive are pushing for staff to accept the cuts in a plebiscite on this “National Jobs Protection Framework”.
Tellingly, USYD Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence has actually indicated he doesn’t intend to use the NTEU’s ‘national framework’. Management is already pursuing massive cuts without needing to resort to it.
And although most students cannot vote themselves in the upcoming national union plebiscite, we can stand in solidarity with staff campaigning for the ‘no vote’. This includes the Sydney Uni branch of the NTEU which has shown an important lead. As well as saying no to the National Framework they have also called an in-person protest at Sydney Uni as part of the NDA.
This is exactly the kind of fight we need. There is an alternative strategy that refuses these massive cuts to jobs and wages: mass mobilisations of students and staff can stop the job cuts, and build a serious campaign for public funding. We must build a political campaign that can both embolden the “no vote” and stop the cuts.
In 2012 340 job cuts were justified by falls in revenue. Thousands protested and students went on strike and launched occupations saving half the academic jobs. In 2016 a 65 day occupation stopped Sydney College of the Arts being closed and saved half of the jobs and several studios threatened by the closure. This year when the Liberals refused to include uni students in their package of increased centrelink payments campaigning forced them to back down.
The National Day of Action (NDA) against the Liberals needs to be the first step of building this campaign: a campaign that says no to the Liberals’ corporate uni and no to every wage cut, course cut and job cut. Solidarity students and others have organised motions in more than 20 classes in support and 200 have signed a statement supporting the NDA and opposing all cuts. Staff successfully contested the attempt to cut the political economy course ECOP1001. We need to build the power that can win.