Resisting the neoliberalisation of universities
The defeat of the union campaign to defend the Australian National University School of Music and the effective sacking of 13 of the 32 staff there without a shot being fired raises important questions about how to fight the neoliberal assault on our higher education institutions.
Neoliberalism is ‘the market assuming centre-stage and governments deploying Universities for instrumental ends’ as Margaret Thornton puts it in her defence of social liberalism and the idea of the university ‘as a community of scholars engaged in the dispassionate pursuit of truth’ in her wonderful book Privatising the Public University: the Case of Law (Routledge 2012).
The School of Music offended neoliberalism because it allegedly ran at a book loss. The figures are disputed but what such a narrow bean counter approach to education means is that community benefit and public good is not only disregarded, it is discredited if there are no dollar signs attached to it.
This was a propitious time and opportunity to defend the internationally recognised and acclaimed School of Music from the onslaught of Ian Young, the chainsaw Vice-Chancellor, and his book-keeper advisers.
Students were angry, staff were angry, and there was massive community support as the demonstration of 1000 people for the School attests.
And yet today the Vice-Chancellor stands supreme, viewing, like an educational Sauron, his work, proclaiming satisfaction with what he has wrought and planning his next neoliberal assaults. Other ‘unprofitable courses’ will be under the microscope and ultimately attack.
The failure of the National Tertiary Education Union to mount an effective campaign to defend the School of Music can be put down to two things – the Labor Government’s industrial laws which effectively criminalise strike action except in certain narrow circumstances and the lack of a tradition in Australia over the last 30 years of fighting industrially and socially for rights, for jobs and for better pay and conditions.
This combination of conservatism and criminalisation was encapsulated in what was for me the defining moment of the campaign, the overwhelming rejection by a mass meeting of staff of a proposal for a stop work meeting to consider further action.
Only 4 members out of 120 voted for the proposal and from that point on, to me, the campaign had hamstrung itself and its ability to act quickly and decisively to defend the staff at the School of Music.
Most strikes and other industrial action in Australia are illegal.
Waterside workers, teachers, building workers, Victorian nurses and New South Wales firefighters have all recently undertaken industrial action which was ‘illegal’.
The outcomes, or possible outcomes since some disputes are still ongoing, have been or will be much more positive than the defeat at the ANU.
No doubt buoyed by his victory, the neoliberal Vice-Chancellor will now revisit a previous proposal to get rid of 150 staff and bide his time till the current bargaining period has ended before moving against other ‘unprofitable’ sections of the University.
The current enterprise agreement at the ANU expired on 30 June and negotiations are beginning.
They will take place against the backdrop of the School of Music defeat and a resurgent neoliberal Vice-Chancellor determined to make all university staff pay for his neoliberal plans. This will mean, as one example, freeing up more money to attract ‘super stars’. The best way to do that would be to hold down our wages.
The ANU has the second lowest pay scales of the G8 Universities.
This enterprise bargaining and the looming loss of hundreds of jobs after it is finished raises again the question of the best way to resist this neoliberal assault at the ANU.
To me the School of Music defeat shows that the way forward would have been members running the campaign, taking ‘illegal’ strike action and rallying community support to picket the University and shut it down.
The same sort of response will be needed during and after the Enterprise Agreement negotiations.
These neoliberal assaults are occurring not just at the ANU but across the University sector.
At the University of Canberra the neoliberal Vice-Chancellor there employs most new staff on precarious 7 year contracts (often reviewable after 3 and 5 years for ‘progress’). This creates a climate of fear, the endless pursuit of ‘publications’ which no one will read and the frantic search for grants which are tied almost exclusively to the needs of big business, not knowledge.
Since student scores count for employment purposes it also possibly means grade inflation so fail students now may pass and pass students may become credit or even distinction students. It is a fools’ paradise of mutual masturbation.
The University of Canberra may well as a consequence of the attacks on staff rise up the ratings scale of Universities but those scales are neoliberal instruments which measure overwork and stress in disguised terms.
They hide the terrible human cost where staff work longer and longer hours in an atmosphere of dictatorial and dysfunctional top down management and where many are looking to leave as soon as they can. The University of Canberra is a neoliberal factory of work fear and stress.
When other Universities respond to their fall, or the perceived possibility of their fall in the comparative rankings, by whipping their staff harder too, you end up with the hamster syndrome, where staff are running faster and faster in a wheel that goes nowhere.
It is not just Canberra where the neoliberal disease has infected our Universities. It is all of them.
At Sydney, RMIT, La Trobe, Swinburne, RMIT, to name a few, staff and courses are under assault as the neoliberal juggernaut spreads and attempts to completely destroy the idea of the university as a public good and to junk ‘unprofitable’ courses as an expression of neoliberal failure.
The fight backs have at best been half hearted because they shy away from real, ongoing, intense and, if needs be to protect the common good of education, illegal strike action.
In the words of the BLF ‘If you don’t fight, you lose’ and the results from university after university in Australia are showing how true that is.
There are lessons University staff and students can learn from overseas.
In Brazil University workers have been on an indefinite teaching strike for 2 months. 56 of the country’s 59 federal universities and 34 federal institutes of technology have been shut down in a strike over better pay and conditions and more staff to address the rapid increase in students. The staff are demanding much more government spending on higher education.
In Québec around 150,000 students have been on strike for months against tuition fee increases. The government criminalised their protests and 300,000 demonstrated ‘illegally’ against the action. The strike is set to reignite in the coming academic year.
In Europe university students and staff have been at the forefront of demonstrations and strikes against austerity, the austerity in universities of increased tuition fees and course and staff cuts.
In Chile, against a background of increasing student numbers, increasing fees, private educators and no new public universities having been built since the end of the Pinochet era, mass students protests since May 2011 have demanded an end to the school voucher system, a state public education system, the end of for-profit education and taxing the rich to pay for it.
In Sudan female university students have been the spark for a nation wide rebellion against the dictatorship.
There has been a common pattern across the Middle East where unemployed graduates and current students and staff have been heavily involved in the struggle against dictatorship and its economic concomitant, neoliberalism.
As the experience in other countries shows, university staff and students can and have fought back against neoliberalism and the commodification of education. It is a lesson students and staff at Australian universities are going to have to learn if we want to stop the rule of the educational barbarians and the horrific consequences that flow and will flow from their ascendancy.
Those educational barbarians are not just the Vice-Chancellors and other agents of neoliberalism in the higher education sector. They are the political parties vying for power and in Australia’s case the current Labor Party government.
Ultimately the demands have to be for more government funding for higher education and to tax the rich to pay for adequate public education. The way to win those demands is to shut the universities down when the neoliberals attack.
Guillaume Legault, one of the leaders of the Québec student strike, will be speaking at the ANU on Monday 30 July at 1 pm in room G 50 of the Haydon-Allen Building in a meeting organised by Socialist Alternative and Socialist Alliance.
John is a tutor in the School of Politics and Social Sciences at the ANU and a member of the NTEU there. He is writing in a personal capacity. He is also enrolled in a doctorate at the ANU. He is a former employee of the University of Canberra.