On the Tuesday of the semester’s first week, hundreds of Monash staff took strike action as part of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), affecting thousands of students. Many classes were cancelled, two picket lines were set up at major entrances to the university, and a rally was held on campus. The strike was decisive in forcing the University to finally give Monash staff a decent deal on pay and conditions.
All Monash students should unambiguously support the NTEU’s industrial action. Our interests as students are furthered when our educators and their support staff flex their muscles against the University administration and win a better deal for themselves. Some staff and students argue that industrial action temporarily disrupts our education, and therefore hurts the student body, but they are myopic and wrong. It is only by disrupting our education in the short term that we can safeguard an affordable and quality education in years to come.
The half-day strike on the fourth of March was the latest episode in enterprise agreement negotiations that have dragged on for over 18 months. That management refused to budge for this long demonstrates its high-handed contempt for the university’s workers, and for the quality of our education. Although a deal has now been signed, we know that the University will always be on the lookout to undermine staff pay and conditions.
What the industrial dispute reveals above all is a fundamental difference between the way that we, the students and staff view education, and the way that the University administration views it. For us, education is a right, something to be cherished. While we pay through the nose for it and emerge with tens of thousands of dollars of debt to our name, we naturally want the most out of our education. But for the people who run this University, education is a commodity, something to be sold and profited from. To them, Monash is simply a degree factory, and we are not students but consumers. The University, like any corporation, wants to make the highest possible profits with the lowest possible production costs. By taking strike action, the NTEU stood up against this.
The NTEU fought around three key issues. On each of these issues, the interests of staff and students align completely. Should the NTEU fail to win its demands, students can only be adversely affected in the long run.
The first is the increasing casualisation of the workforce. More and more workers in the tertiary sector are having their jobs renewed only on a casual basis. This means that every few months they have to seek out a new contract with the University, denying them any secure tenure. Casual contracts curtail workers’ rights and entitlements as well as imposing a real sense of insecurity.
“I was once asked to teach an entire 13-week unit, with three days’ notice. I couldn’t say no; I would have been fired”, explained one worker on the picket line. Casualising the workforce might be good for the University’s profit margins, but it is terrible for our education as students. It increases the staff turnover, undermines the stability of the workforce, and creates over-worked and stressed academics. This hurts the quality of our education by attacking the living standards and working conditions of our educators.
The second issue the union is agitating about is management’s proposal to extend regular working hours. It wants the right to dictate that shifts can begin at 7am and finish at 9pm and to direct that staff work during summer trimesters. Also in management’s sights are current staff-student ratios. Again, if the University is successful on these fronts, our education is only undermined. It is particularly the case with staff-student ratios, which have ballooned at Monash in recent years and which stretch staff thin over dozens more students.
The third point of contention is the university’s pay offer. At 2.5 percent a year over three years, the offer barely keeps pace with inflation. Management is also refusing to backdate any increase to July 2012, when the previous agreement expired. Again, it should go without saying that an underpaid teaching staff simply cannot deliver education to the standard that they would otherwise would have.
Some staff who abstained from the strike argue that they did so because their first priority is their students’ education. But these staff, who it must be said will still enjoy the pay rise and better working conditions won by the very strike that they themselves undermined, could not be more short-sighted. What is one day, or even a week of classes lost to strike action, when it is strike action that is needed to safeguard a quality education for years to come? Students should stand by their student union the Monash Student Association in applauding the staff who went on strike. As long as the University undervalues its workers, we will stand alongside the NTEU proudly.
Declan Murphy is an Education (Public Affairs) Officer at the MSA