COVID plus corporatisation: How to overcome this toxic combination for higher education

Workers and students at Australian National University in Canberra participate in a National Day of Action in 2017. Photo from NTEU.
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COVID-19 has detonated a crisis in Australian higher education. Vice chancellors panicked when the pandemic hit at the start of the 2020 academic year. Neoliberalism has transformed universities from learning institutions to corporations dependent on fees from overseas students and research dollars from business. This model collapsed, with the sector estimated to lose $1.8 billion in revenue compared to 2019. Campuses became ghost towns. With many students stranded by border closures and their classrooms empty, universities shed over 17 thousand jobs, many in the arts and humanities. The remaining overworked academics were ordered to switch to remote learning, almost overnight. To shore up their jobs and bloated salaries, by year two of the pandemic, university management sacrificed more teaching jobs from the highly casualised workforce. Meanwhile the federal government shifted costs to students, doubling the fees for a humanities degree after cutting a further 9.3% from university budgets.

While border quarantine measures were necessary to prevent the spread of the virus, as international enrolments plummeted the loss of fees threw the sector into turmoil. The government’s decision to deny higher education access to JobKeeper further exacerbated the crisis. In July 2020, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and Monash University cut a deal agreeing to delay pay increases to “save” 190 jobs. This outrageous plan failed to stem the job losses. Monash cut 277 jobs in the first six months of 2020 alone. Many university staff continue to be unemployed today or have been forced to change jobs.

Universities implode. The future remains uncertain for students and staff as the Delta strain of the coronavirus ravages the world. This year, the Coalition government announced they would provide an additional $1 billion dollars to the Research Support Program to “alleviate the financial pressures on universities during the COVID-19 pandemic.” They also announced a scheme — the Job-Ready Graduates Package — to encourage enrolments from domestic students. Neither offering provides long-term solutions, doing nothing to reverse the fundamental problem entrenched pre-pandemic of treating universities as businesses rather than educational institutions.

In 2017, the Turnbull government reduced university funding by 2.5%, and fees were increased by a further $2,000 to $3,600 for a four-year course. Under the Morrison government, these dismal figures have grown worse. In 2021, fees for humanities and communications subjects were hiked by 113%. Law, commerce, economics increased by 28%, and a full four-year program in these disciplines will now cost around $58,000. It is estimated that these degrees will take approximately 20 years to pay off.

Gaining a tertiary education is getting harder for students, especially for the working class majority. Many students missed out on JobKeeper, have lost their part-time jobs, and wages have flatlined. Remote learning is tough for students and teachers alike and is having a cataclysmic impact on the quality of education. Online learning has significant limitations. For example, it is impossible for a nurse to learn how to use personal protective equipment correctly via zoom when the university hasn’t provided them the necessary equipment. Or a photography student cannot learn online how to develop film in a darkroom. On top of this, students who get a second-rate experience, are expected to cough up the full amount of their HECS debt at the end of their degrees!

Students and teachers need better solutions to access materials and spaces they need to learn in a COVID-safe way without putting their health at risk. Instead of fee increases, the cost of degrees gained during the pandemic needs to be slashed for all students.

Bipartisan erosion. While the Liberal-National Coalition government is responsible for the latest budget cuts and surge in fees, the Australian Labor Party is also complicit in the decades of scheming to desecrate the public sector. Both are motivated by free market ideology. Both have presided over underfunding and reducing the influence of the state in the economy through privatisation and austerity.

The repercussions of policies implemented by Labor in the 1980s still exist today. Among them are the elimination of free higher education and the introduction of HECS in 1989 by the Hawke administration. The legacy of the Accord, introduced in 1983, also casts a long shadow. It weakened the once-powerful union movement and created the conditions for decades of neoliberal assaults.Universities were not spared from the pervasive competitive agenda, eroding the foundations of critical thinking as academia was increasingly co-opted by the highest business backer and corporatised.

The trend downward was pronounced well before COVID. A 2016 report estimated that higher education revenues could decline by a further $5 billion to $6 billion by 2030, forcing universities to cut at least 50 per cent of their non-research staff, with some institutions facing closure. To put these statistics into perspective, the Arts faculty at La Trobe university during the 1970s had 24 full-time philosophers employed in their Philosophy department. By the end of 2021, only three philosophers will remain. Teachers and students pay the price, while university vice-chancellors are on salaries, as high as $1 million a year, as CEOs to profitably run their “business.”

History can point the way. While the future does not look promising, the right plan can turn this around. There’s much to be learned from earlier eras.

University fees were abolished in 1974. For the next 14 years, universities were places where ideas were shared and expressed freely without the influence of lobbyists or corporations. The participation rate, especially for women, blossomed. Far from a gift from a benevolent government, free education was won through struggle. The 1960s and 1970s was a period radical change. There was fierce opposition to the U.S. intervention of Vietnam, coupled with a mass women’s liberation movement, gay liberation and demands for Aboriginal land rights. Ideas about student power and workers’ control of industry were gaining in popularity. The radical youth of the time were challenging the ideological hegemony of conservative forces in the Western world. This was a time of revolutionary organising.

As a result of the influx of working class students heading to university for the first time, the Australian Union of Students (AUS) became the largest union in Australia — far bigger than any of the trade unions. AUS was a democratic and activist organisation that prioritised its members and had a solid relationship with trade unions. It sponsored the first National Homosexual Conference, its Women’s Department produced an influential kit for combatting in sexism in schools, and it was a pioneer in acknowledging the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and campaigning for East Timor’s independence. University campuses were teaching more than the official curriculum — they were a school for working class organising.The AUS was a product of its times. After it collapsed, it was replaced in the ‘80s with the less effective National Union of Students which became a breeding ground for political Liberal and Labor political aspirationalism, rather than grassroots activism.

The AUS provides important inspiration for the type of organising needed in the future, not only for students but also for workers — it was a radical, multi-issue, democratic and mass grassroots organisation. In more recent times, there have been glimpses of this legacy, such as in 2014 when the Liberals’ efforts to deregulate fees were stopped.

In 2021, the battle continues as the government attempts to suck as much profit as possible from the pockets of students and staff.

It is vital to propose clear and concrete demands to counter the failures dogging higher education today. Key solutions would include:

  • Scrap all HECS debts — make education free for everyone!
  • End user-pays which widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots — tax the rich and big corporations to fund free quality education from kindergarten to university!
  • End corporations calling the shots on research priorities and interfering with the curriculum — students and staff should determine the curriculum that is taught!
  • Rebuild a strong student union that reflects student interests by making membership and genuine participation open to all students through mass participatory democracy.
  • Create a strong and genuinely democratic union for teachers and staff at universities that priorities the demands of insecure and low-paid workers! Defend and extend jobs, wages and conditions — no compromise for the seven-figure salaries that vice-chancellors take away each year!

These demands would benefit those hardest hit, particularly women, First Nations students, those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and all working class students who get squeezed. Central to the fightback is forging a multi-issue, anti-capitalist movement that unites workers and students who share a common interest.

Capitalism is ill-equipped to handle any crisis, let alone a global pandemic. This is ironic, given that organising the economy this way is the catalyst for so many! We need to build a united front to tackle the bureaucracy of universities and to push back against the virulent attacks by the government against the working class, students and trade unions. Finding common ground in the things that unite us, and overcoming the malicious tactics of division used by the ruling class can start reversing the higher education crisis, solidify some wins and guarantee many more to come.

Maudie is a young worker with the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union. She graduated from Monash last year with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Honours in Art History and Theory.

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