The attack on the university is political

Something in the order of 10,000 full-time jobs have been lost at Australian universities this year, as the sector haemorrhages revenue. The real figure is probably higher, and when cuts to casual teaching staff are factored in – casually employed tutors are the majority of teaching staff at Australian universities – the order of job losses climbs into the tens of thousands.

But ‘loss’ is the wrong word to describe this dismantling of a public sector labour force: too passive, too vague, as if the jobs merely fell behind the couch and are waiting to be found again. No: this is deliberate, these are cuts, and Scott Morrison’s government has changed the rules of JobKeeper three times to stop any public university accessing wage subsidies during this long pandemic. Meanwhile, the private tertiary institutions – including Bond University, Notre Dame, and the shopfront Sydney campus of New York University – have qualified for JobKeeper, as have private schools. And Crown Casino, and the Catholic Church. This aggressive parsimoniousness towards public universities has been sustained despite the fact that the Morrison government initially overestimated what it would spend on JobKeeper by $60 billion.

In other words, the money was there – has always been there – to be spent on subsidising the wages of public university staff, but the government has declined to spend it.

This comes on top of decades of federal government funding cuts to universities, with further cuts imminent, the shortfall to be paid by increasing HECS-HELP fees for domestic students. I’ve lost sleep trying to figure out how Dan Tehan’s cack-handed price-signalling policy will actually function: on paper, beginning in 2021, an arts degree will cost a student more in deferred government loans, and a science degree will cost less, but in reality every student will lose. Meanwhile, those luckless and exploited full-fee-paying international students, to whom the universities have turned for the past twenty years in order to offset successive funding cuts, are being left to starve – literally – as the Morrison government refuses to allow student visa holders to access either JobKeeper or JobSeeker.

Jobs, jobs, jobs, Job-Ready fucking jobs. Let me tell you about the job of teaching in a public university as one of those two-in-three Australian university workers employed on a casual contract. I’m on one right now.

Firstly, you get no notice of employment: it’s routine not to have a contract confirmed until semester has already begun. Secondly, you get no work space: I’m currently teaching from home by video conference, but even without a pandemic, a casual tutor’s lot is to do everything apart from their face-to-face teaching – that’s class preparation, research, reading, administration and marking – in whatever space they can find; with the napping undergrads in the library, or on the train during their commute to campus, or at home. Wage theft is an open secret and converting one’s casual employment into permanent, full-time work is a pipe dream. I have friends and peers, furnished with PhDs, who’ve taught casually for years, by which I mean decades, without a university seeing fit to employ them on anything apart from semester-length contracts: no holiday pay, no sick leave, no security. It erodes one’s spirit, steadily and surely. How can you conceive of your life knowing what it will look like more than twelve weeks into the future?

Then there are the students, many of them juggling full-time work on top of what’s also meant to be a full-time study load. The majority – and this continues to astonish me – maintain some kind of equanimity in the face of this, fronting up to classes with curiosity and cheer, but others are sullen, uninterested and exhausted, and I can hardly blame them. No matter where I have taught, I see the collective wellbeing of students begin to dim around each mid-semester, when assessments come due and the impossible task of finding enough hours in a day to both study and work shatters their mental and physical health. They know, and they know that I know, that the university does not really care for them, as people. They are marks and dollars. The lack of pastoral care at universities is a scandal: I experienced it myself as an undergraduate, but that was twenty years ago, when the corporatisation of public universities was only just gathering speed. Least of all regarded are the international students, who are vulnerable in every way, and whom I see abandoned by the university machine as soon as their fees are wrung from them.

I do not wish to defend Australian universities as they exist. But I do wish to defend the principle of public tertiary education as a good – not a product, but a good – that should be available to everyone.

My Nanna, my maternal grandmother, who left school at sixteen and got married at eighteen, was able to attend Teachers’ College, as it was called then, when Gough Whitlam’s government made university free to attend, in 1974. She had already raised three children by then, including my mother, who also went to Teachers’ College for free.

I went to Sydney College of the Arts, which, last year, lost its purpose-designed facilities at Rozelle’s Callan Park and was amalgamated with the main campus of the University of Sydney. Because no one needs an art school, right? But that’s another story. The point I’m trying to make here is that three successive generations of women in my family have been able to gain a tertiary education because the barriers to doing so, barriers of income and infrastructure and time, were not insurmountable, though they are increasingly so.

I make this point not because I believe that the purpose of education is class mobility: to lift oneself up to some ‘better’ kind of work. I believe that education, at any level, holds emancipatory potential precisely because it’s a space apart from work, and a time in which to think outside of our role as workers. Or rather, this is what education could be, but isn’t, at the contemporary university, where all learning and teaching is directed to the myopic, ideological goal of ‘productivity’, and where students and staff are both ground down by the structural pressures of work. This is what ‘Job-Ready graduates’ means, of course: the intensification of the university’s role as a disciplinary tool for employers. As Erin Stewart put it in Overland in July: ‘all of this time, all of your life, is directed at being employed’.

Staff and student struggles against the transformation of tertiary education into employment training have been met, over the past twenty years, with a concomitant crackdown by the state on protest and industrial organising. I remember – just – when it was still possible to shame a university administration for allowing police onto campus; now squadrons of cops march across the University of Sydney quadrangle in order to break up a tiny, socially distanced protest against job losses and fee hikes.

I remember when it was possible to hold demonstrations of 10,000 students against the threat of fee increases and deregulation, but that was before John Howard’s government passed its voluntary student unionism legislation in 2005, thus knee-capping the organising capacity of students. I finished my undergraduate degree in 2004, making my student cohort the last – the very last – to hold some memory of our collective power. Often I have felt in the past decade that some chain of transmission has been broken, and it has been; the lessons I was taught by activists blooded in the social struggles of the 70s, 80s and 90s have not been passed down, and this has not been accidental. The stymying of union power among both students and workers in Australia, and a concurrent erosion of civil liberties, has left us with almost no means of recourse, either to street protest or industrial action. In this country we are dangerously over-policed and atomised, and we have seen several times already the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has been used by the state as a justification for further repression of protest.

I believe that successive generations of politicians, worldwide, are haunted by the spectre of May 1968 and will do anything to prevent to a general insurrection of university students and workers, acting together, from ever happening again. This is the real ghost lurking behind the ‘Marxists in our universities’ culture-war rhetoric. Our universities are not sites of radical dissent, but they could be, which means that those acts of resistance that are happening now – like the announced protest on 23 September by the University of New South Wales Education Collective – are like bright flares in the dark. The point of education, I have always believed, is not class mobility, but the potential for class liberation.


Image: Demonstration on the anniversary of the 2 October 1968 massacre of student protesters in Mexico City, Wikimedia Commons

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is a Sydney writer. Her second book of non-fiction, No Document was published in 2021 by Giramondo and was short-listed for the Stella Prize.

More by Anwen Crawford ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Thank you I couldn’t agree more. I went to University post children and I always thought I was disadvantaged but in retrospect I was a gift to the discussion, I was brave and I worked bloody hard to get into doctorate program. I was passionate and driven but I digress – my point – without that experience I would not be the person I am today – I realised I was a reflective introvert that liked people. I also understood others and all the diversity in my childhood was also my sword. My life of growing alongside aboriginal people also made me appreciate my knowledge of all my life experiences. I was accepted into doctorate program but withdrew due to time but I will return. But that is a choice I want this for all Australians not because they have wealthy parents or a multi national organisation who will pay for an MBA. I protested for free education in the 80s.

    I am me because of so many experiences but my time at University was something I started and I finished – a hero’s journey- that journey almost killed me working full time, raising children, death of family, marriage issues – but I’m a hero in my own mind and I am the woman I am today because of University.

    I want that for all women, men and young adults.

  2. ‘Firstly, you get no notice of employment: it’s routine not to have a contract confirmed until semester has already begun. Secondly, you get no work space: I’m currently teaching from home by video conference, but even without a pandemic, a casual tutor’s lot is to do everything apart from their face-to-face teaching – that’s class preparation, research, reading, administration and marking – in whatever space they can find; with the napping undergrads in the library, or on the train during their commute to campus, or at home.’

    Yep, I hear you!

  3. The point about the “chain of activism” is scarily true. Student organisations are shells. As a current student I’ve got no idea what to do in the face of it.

  4. I have no doubt that the current round of fee increases is designed to lead to the privatisation of the public university system. Especially now with hundreds of billions of debt, the sale of assets will look very attractive to a government.
    University administrators will not argue as been free of government oversight and corporate culture will kead to massive wage rises for top level admins.
    This would also explain why public unis were denied jobkeeper but private weren’t, weaken the staff base so they will comply, reduce ongoing costs by fireing staff, all without redicing the physical asset base.

  5. A fabulous article. I think as university employees (those who are left), we really need to refuse to work with upper management on their corporatised initiatives from now on.

    Look at their woeful ‘response’ to the Tehan cuts. They are as much a part of the problem as successive Lib-Lab governments.

  6. I warmly remember the individual student support at Oxford 50 years ago(without which I would have dropped out completely)— a culture I have done my best to replicate in Australia for many of the following years, but now overhear arts staff from many universities (this was at an arts conference) unconsciously referring to all their universities as ‘corporates’. The apparent alliance between top management and corporate values gets stronger and stronger and yet is i suspect a largely unconscious convergence. However the results are deplorable, many cited in this article and comments. Yet again, those remaining -paid, unpaid, or casual- are all still doing our best to add value

  7. Thank you, Anwen. I am buoyed whenever I hear of others who believe that education is about more than just getting a better job and that productivity should not be at the very core of our existence. The problem we face is that our culture no longer has any yardstick against which to measure value except money. If the worth of something cannot be stated in dollar terms then it quite literally cannot be considered. As we lose the ability to recognize value outside of economics, and to appreciate that things can be sacred even in a secular society, we lose our humanity.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.