Staff and students are being asked to pay for the crisis

Words by Leila Clendon and Ana Obradovic

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The tertiary sector is facing huge attacks by the federal government and university management. International students are languishing without federal support, while those still enrolled experience a very different quality of classes online. Meanwhile, estimates of a $5 billion dollar revenue loss are being used as the pretext for university management to begin the restructures they’ve wanted all along. These include: pay cuts, hiring and wage freezes, increased workload for staff, mass layoffs of casuals, cancellation of less profitable courses, and forced redundancies. Any attack on staff is an attack on student learning conditions. We must stand in solidarity to fight and say: No uni cuts!! Make the rich pay!!

Students and staff around the country are preparing for the fight of our lives to defend the higher education sector. Faced with a health and economic crisis incomparable to anything we’ve seen in our lifetime, university management and the federal government are preparing a restructure from hell to recoup their losses after the withering away of international student enrolments and funding.

While the Morrison government has managed to find billions in stimulus packages for big business, the tertiary sector has been refused the estimated $5 billion required to keep universities running. This is unacceptable. Public institutions should be publicly funded. We reject the idea that the same government that found $200 billion for stimulus packages can’t find the money to save the tertiary sector. Higher education is deeply important for Australian capitalism — it’s where the next generation of thinkers and workers are created. The reason there has been no bailout for university staff and students is because management and politicians would rather we pay for their crisis. Instead of universities being bailed out, it is staff and students who will be squeezed for every last drop in order meet management’s bottom line. And management have been brazen about making staff pay. In addition to attacks on worker and student conditions, university Vice Chancellors across Australia have even emailed overworked-and-underpaid staff asking for donations of pay and annual leave!

International students have been some of the hardest hit during this crisis. While domestic students receive a rise in Centrelink, international students have been left to fend for themselves. Like domestic students, many of international students rely on retail and hospitality jobs to get by. Those jobs have now disappeared. Scott Morrison has ruled out extending payments to them, saying they should “go home” if they can’t support themselves. His comments are outrageously cruel and callous, particularly when closed borders and minimal flights make this is easier said than done. This approach has left hundreds of thousands of students with little means of supporting themselves. And while universities have begun to scramble together emergency grants to entice international students they treat as cash cows, their past record hasn’t been much better. For decades now, universities have made their money by charging international students an average of three times the amount domestic students pay. But these students are now finding that they’ve flown across the world, sometimes spending their family’s savings, to get a sub-par online course they could have taken at home. And they’re still being forced to pay the exorbitant fees. This semester is a write-off. Students shouldn’t have to pay — they should be reimbursed!

The government’s willingness to sacrifice international students affects all of campus life. In fact, it spells the end of the current education funding system. For decades now, universities have become more and more privatised. This is partly due to domestic students having to pay for their education through HECS debts, but in a large part because education has been paid for by making international students pay these massive fees up front. In 2017, almost a quarter of university income was from international students. Last year education was Australia’s third biggest export, bringing in $36.7 billion. This has now all gone. With borders shut across the world, students aren’t likely to enrol next semester. And with the world economy collapsing, it’s hard to say if people will be able to afford to come back.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) president Alison Barnes estimates that this will cause a $5 billion loss of university revenue this year alone. As usual, the question of who pays for this crisis is being thrown up, and, as usual, the response of the ruling class has been “ordinary people” — the working class. Universities Australia Chairwoman, Deborah Terry estimated that there would be 21,000 job losses in the sector. At Adelaide University there’s already been a hiring freeze, which means that people who had already been accepted to teach in semester two have been let go. The University of Sydney has seen a mass sacking of casual staff, a freeze on new hiring, and increased workload for admin staff. At Melbourne University, staff have been informed that they’ve lost their jobs through email. The University of Tasmania has cut 194 of its 514 courses, which will obviously come with many job losses. At the University of New South Wales 1 in 3 casuals have lost their jobs. Staff and students should anticipate more attacks as this crisis continues, and begin preparing to fight back.

But unfortunately, this is not what the Tertiary Union’s national leadership has been doing. NTEU official Matthew McGowan sent an email to members saying that the union’s negotiating strategy was to immediately offer cuts to staff wages and conditions in exchange for job security. Since then National Councillors of the NTEU have been informed that a pay cut of 10% on income above $40,000 is being discussed. Even faced with such concessions, universities have made no commitment to stopping job cuts. And even if they did, there is very little the union could do to keep management to such an agreement. “Postgrads like me are already losing our casual work!” said Jack, a postgraduate student who has lost all work he had been promised for next semester. “There’s a hiring freeze! The NTEU rolling over now and being concessionary won’t help us.”

Students should stand in solidarity with rank and file NTEU workers around the country preparing to fight their union leadership’s weak negotiating strategy. The Monash University and Melbourne University NTEU branch committees and NTEU members meetings at Sydney University, La Trobe University and Flinders University have passed motions calling on the NTEU to wage an industrial and political campaign to “defend every job, every condition and every income of staff.” Here at Adelaide University NTEU members have been getting ready to challenge it too. “I don’t disagree that there is a space for compromise and for dialogue,” said Adelaide University NTEU delegate Peter Burdon, “But I don’t accept that our leadership should start out from such a craven position and I am unimpressed with their ability to communicate with members so far.”

A national petition of members now has over 750 signatures calling for the union to exert its industrial muscle and strike instead of surrendering. This dissident team has begun to organise a “no” vote in response to the union’s offer of concession to the bosses. If you’re a member of the NTEU you can sign the petition and join the fight here.

It’s important to stand up to this because many workers can’t afford to lose 10% of their wages, least of all during a recession. In many households, university workers will be the only ones to keep their jobs, so they’ll have more dependants than before. It’s also important because a wage cut doesn’t guarantee a job. There is a long history of bosses arguing for workers to take a wage cut for the sake of their jobs, and then firing them anyway. Infamously in South Australia, we saw this happen at both the Holden car factory and the Whyalla Steelworks!

In fact, conceding wages and conditions only weakens the union’s ability to fight for jobs. Giving up without a fight — meeting bosses at the negotiating table with immediate offers of concessions — only signals weakness to management. As the online petition says, this strategy gives bosses the “confidence to cut deeper if and when this crisis becomes more protracted. And there is no way they will commit to preserving all jobs if our first response is a sign of weakness.”

The petition argues that government should bail out the sector with no strings attached, all jobs secured, and casuals reinstated. As postgraduate and unionist Jack told us, “This is not a utopian demand to make, and would be a drop in the ocean compared to some of the stimulus the Morrison government has been throwing around recently.” After years and years of refusing activists’, unionists’ and even businesses’ call for an increase to the criminally low Newstart Allowance, the government suddenly found the money, not only to double Newstart but also Youth Allowance. They’ve also found the money to hand $715 million to Qantas, despite them firing thousands of workers, and despite Allen Joyce’s salary of $24 million a year. Even before the crisis the government found $29 billion to hand out to the mining industry last year. If the government can find that much money to hand out to private companies, we can make them find the $5 billion to run what is supposedly a public service.

Education Minister Dan Tehan has released an education “relief package,” but this does very little to help public universities. The $18 billion it committed is not new money. This package had already been promised to universities — the announcement was simply assurance that they weren’t going to cut funding just now. In addition, almost all extra money will now go to short courses that are mainly run by private institutions, not public universities.

People have come to see education as something that should be a right. If people want to go to university they should be able to, aided by the government. Very few people in Australia want a U.S. style system where people have to save for years to send their kids to college. But for decades our education system has become more and more like that. Universities are making billions of dollars in profits from exploiting international students, and that money is being transferred to personal profits by means of some of the largest salaries for senior management in the world. The Time’s Higher Education estimates that Peter Rathjen, the Adelaide University Vice Chancellor (highest position in the Uni) made $1.1 Million in 2018. Even the 20% of his salary that he’s donating to the student support package is more than the most senior lecture in the university’s salary and more than double the salary of a junior lecturer. And that’s only 20% of his salary!

This crisis shows what a terrible idea privatising an essential industry is. And essential, this industry is. Despite the government wanting us to think that it’s the individual student that gains the most from a university education, higher education is in fact essential for the state — particularly in the context of recession when thousands go back to university. For the stable running of society, the government needs trained nurses, doctors, teachers and engineers. The university sector is hugely important for Australian capitalism. But they’ve left it up to the free market, and that market has just collapsed. The government doesn’t want this industry to collapse, they need it. And they have the ability to renationalise it, they just don’t want to. They want staff to pay for it, not them.

This means that the NTEU has incredible industrial power. If they decided to shut down the industry — as staff across Australia have indicated they are willing to do — the government would be under incredible pressure to concede to their demands to ensure the economy keeps going. This isn’t a time for conceding, this is a time for fighting. “Like” the Students Organising Resistance in the Pandemic — SOR, and NTEU Fightback — No Concessions pages on Facebook to keep up to date and get involved with the struggle against attacks on higher education. They say cut back, we say fight back!

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Adelaide University student magazine since 1932. Edited by Nicholas Birchall, Felix Eldridge, Taylor Fernandez and Larisa Forgac. Email us at

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