Why Jason Clare’s Universities Accords won’t work for students

As a student activist and unionist, I’ve been at my fair share of protests chanting ‘No cuts, no fees, no corporate universities’. Students have always been at the forefront of social movements, and university campuses have a proud tradition of radical activism. However, for the first time in a decade—and the first time ever for the current generation of students—we are facing a federal government that is prepared to meet with student unions, and try to make us feel heard. It would be easy to think that this calls for a complete reorientation of political strategy.

The government’s proposal for the Australian Universities Accords will be our first test. Before the election, Tanya Plibersek promised that the accords would be far-reaching, and that ‘no aspect of the higher education system will be out of bounds.’ Many people will hear this and feel hopeful that this could be our chance to undo the rampant neoliberalism that frames our places of learning as big businesses. Can we finally have a proper discussion about making university free? Could a strategic intervention into this process from the National Union of Students finally reposition education as a right that has inherent value outside of its commercial or economic potential?

The short answer is no. Going in with our eyes open to the power dynamics and conflicting visions of education between the two sides will quickly unburden student unions of this notion.

The rhetoric of the Universities Accords mirrors the Prices and Income Accords of the 1980s. Then, a deal was forged, theoretically swapping reduced industrial militancy for social services like medicare. The parallel is a red flag, as the accords have long been considered a key turning point in Australia towards neoliberalism.

Labor has emphasised that the ultimate goal of the process is to achieve a sector-wide consensus. With all stakeholders in the same room, we can talk out our problems and reach an evidence-based and sensible approach in a depoliticised manner. Apparently, the only thing getting in the way of a liberating education has been pesky partisanship. Of course, this is bullshit.

University management—with their Vice-Chancellors on million-dollar salaries and their corporate board appointees—have diametrically opposed interests to university students and staff.

It is in the interest of Vice-Chancellors to run universities like big businesses—their salaries, jobs, power and political vision relies on it. And if you’re going to run universities like a corporation, certain policies and practices flow on. You would want to extract the maximum productivity out of your workers while minimising staff cost. So naturally, you would continue the rampant casualisation that forces staff to do significant hours of work unpaid. You would want to reduce costs and ‘inefficiencies’ wherever possible, so you would cut any courses that seem niche or off-brand. You have budget issues? No problem: just fire some staff—or fail to renew short-term casual contracts—and increase class sizes. You might view in-person lectures as an unnecessary expense: just use the recorded lectures of staff you have since sacked for the next few years. Is government research funding drying up? Let’s sign deals with big corporations and prioritise research that can be commercialised.

This is the thinking that the university sector is currently built on, and is what university management will bring to the accords.

If it isn’t yet clear, this logic is fundamentally against the interests of students, and our teachers. Students want a better-quality education: this means more course options, smaller classes and tutors who have secure jobs and are paid for all the work they do. It is in our interests to contain the unbridled power of university management, working with staff to democratise decision-making.

In this context, students, staff and university management will never be able to reach a consensus. The government needs to pick a side. Either stand with staff and students, or with university management.

Jason Clare’s decision to go forward with the accords could mean one of two things. Either he doesn’t understand that students and vice-chancellors want different things (which is unlikely), or he understands our different interests and is using the accords to appear to carry out consultation, but in an environment where he knows the existing power dynamics will favour the perspective of management.

He seems to have picked a side. It just isn’t ours.

Understanding all this, students need to be clear that an accords-style process won’t bring the change we want to see. We will need to be vigilant to not let the accords work as a conservatising force. There will be pressure on student unions to prioritise their relationship with the government over more adversarial forms of activism to ensure we have a seat at the table. This would be a significant mistake.

At the same time, we shouldn’t get bogged down in a needless debate about whether or not to engage with the accords. So long as we don’t compromise on our militancy and demands, it won’t fundamentally hurt our cause to have students agitating inside the room. Imperatively, however, our focus must remain on where we actually derive the political power for transformative change: collective action and social movements.


Image by Fidel Fernando

Luc Velez

Luc Velez is a student activist and the Education Officer of the National Union of Students.

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