The Australian university is in crisis, or, at least, has undergone deep structural changes over the past forty years, rendering it virtually unrecognisable today. The ‘Dawkins Revolution’ of the late 1980s is commonly seen as marking the introduction of a neoliberal agenda to a previously inclusive university model. Its reforms included the re-introduction of fees (under the HECS scheme) and increased bureaucratisation, transforming ‘a broadly cooperative system into a divisive collection of competing firms’.
This trend of commercialisation has only risen in intensity: individual universities now have ‘public-relations units’ promoting their corporate image (that produce, for example, ANU’s spookily named ‘Thought Leaders’ campaign), and the Australian government attempted near-total fee deregulation in 2016. A culture of surveillance and regulation is rife, whereby educational institutions may only ‘succeed’ in the new competitive field by meeting certain arbitrary metrics, none of which are concerned primarily with the pursuit of knowledge. Rather, knowledge is instrumentalised, and prioritised according to how useful it is to certain governmental and/or institutional objectives.
As Raewyn Connell argues, under ‘market logic, degrees that seem to offer economic pay-offs to the student attract higher enrolments and become more important to universities.’ Rather than aiming for real production of knowledge, universities – and by consequence, their students – are now trapped in a cycle of performing acts of knowledge production. In other words, Connell writes, ‘[s]howing auditable output within the logic of the system and its measures becomes the requirement; no-one is simply trusted to be doing valuable work.’
We are fed up with working for free.
We demand real money now for the schoolwork we do.
How can we escape the consuming and often absurd logics of neoliberalism? One way, perhaps, is to return to the notion of knowledge itself – that is, knowledge as a valuable good, and its production as a form of real and valued labour. Such a perspective does not, obviously, remove the university from the confines of capitalism. But it does acknowledge the increasingly commodified position that Australian students find themselves in today. American political philosopher George Caffentzis is quite convincing on this point. He argues that ‘what goes on at the university is work’, both specifically, through production of knowledge, and more generally through the absorption of self-discipline (essential for the later integration of citizens into a regimented workforce). It is the unwaged nature of university work that allows it the appearance of personal volition, and obscures how it deliberately and increasingly conforms to capitalist discipline and training for future exploitation.
Backlash against the imposition of unwaged labor has been present from 1975 at least, as evidenced by the anonymous collective publication of ‘Wages for Students’ in the US. The manifesto was influenced by Silvia Federici’s ‘Wages Against Housework’ pamphlet, in which Federici argued that the unwaged nature of women’s domestic labour was not only deliberate, but highly political. That is, that capitalism has socialised women to accept a job that offers no economic or social return, purely on the basis of sex. Extrapolating this argument to the case of the student, Wages for Students argues that:
Students belong to the working class. More specifically, we belong to that part of the working class that is unwaged (unpaid). Our wagelessness condemns us to lives of poverty, dependence, and overwork. But worst of all, not getting a wage means that we lack the power that the wage provides in dealing with capital.
For those of us who do not receive … support, not getting a wage means having to work an additional job outside of school. And since the labor market is saturated with students looking for these jobs, capital imposes minimum wages and benefits on us.
The absurdity of this is even further magnified by the very high productivity requirements which are constantly being imposed on us as students (exams, quizzes, papers, etc.) and by the way we are being programmed so that we impose further productivity requirements on ourselves …
In Australia, working- and middle-class students who cannot obtain financial familial support must both study and work a shitty part- or full-time job. Government youth allowance payments are deliberately difficult to obtain and excessively bureaucratic. Certainly, they are not provided on the presumption that to study is to perform valuable labour. Without a stable wage, students are vulnerable to appalling labour practises and employers who pay below minimum wage, cash-in-hand, or withhold mandatory superannuation. Such precarity is compounded by the fact that domestic students may lose their benefits altogether if discovered to be relying on this kind of work, while international students face harsh visa restrictions that mean they rarely have the option of working legally.
More comfortable students who do receive family support can often opt out of such precarious work situations, instead concentrating on their studies, and hence performing better. These students also have more time to invest in extra-curriculars and/or unpaid internships, or waiting for a job that will be beneficial for their CV (for example, a paralegal job for a law student). The unwaged nature of student labour, then, is also necessarily classist, and serves to sustain traditional class hierarchies in Australia, as citizens transition into the workforce.
Our universities are ‘experiencing the same dislocations being felt within the broader, late-capitalist … society’, Michelle Carmody writes in The neoliberal university in Australia: permanent crisis. ‘The stratification of university degrees based on earning potential, the designation of higher education as an export product, and … the transformation of the entire funding model’ has effectively reduced Australian higher education system into factories, Carmody argues, within which citizens pay to be disciplined for smooth entrance to a neoliberal workforce.
Obviously, this view is quite dystopic. But as the Australian government continues its attempts to neoliberalise and Amercanise a previously accessible education system, such dire pronouncements become our new norms. Conceptualising university education as commercialised labour may be the first step in allowing us to fight back against the neoliberal doctrines that have come to subsume us both inside and outside university life.