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Staff and Students Will Not Pay for the Crisis in Our Universities

Words by Corey Everitt and Ana Best

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the authors, and should not be taken to represent the views of Lot’s Wife.

The crisis of revenue in higher education cannot be understated. Most universities are going to be writing off hundreds of millions of dollars for just this year. Monash has announced an expected loss of $350 million, while University of New South Wales is claiming $600 million. The sector has to make profits like any other in order to survive. Universities have made giant leaps as an industry thanks to the hyper-exploitation of international students, forced to pay full fees upfront. Since the lockdown and effective seizure of international travel in the Covid-19 crisis, these lucrative imports have ceased along with the exorbitant revenue. This will have more lasting impacts as lockdowns may come and go, but the borders will be restricted for much longer. In the period of the next three years, universities are expected to lose $23 billion in revenue across the sector. The industry must somehow change the structure of education to make revenue without the supply of international students that has circumstanced a massive portion of university revenue for years. As such, it is almost a certainty now that the next few years will result in a dramatic change to education and university life. The question going forward is: who will benefit and who will lose out from this? Will the universities provide unprecedented restructures to reclaims their profits? Or will students fight for an alternative vision of education that benefits them?    

They want workers and students to pay for it

What is the response thus far by universities? Some of the most devastating cuts to higher education in decades. University workers are expected to suffer the brunt of this so far, as Universities Australia has already announced that an expected 21,000 people will lose their jobs in the sector. The ones that don’t lose their job will see up to 15% of their pay cut and degrading conditions: this was unveiled in a new plan last week from university heads and, disgracefully, the leadership of the staff union (the NTEU). Already, however, university managers everywhere are cutting the budgets hard. Many cleaners and library staff at Monash have already been laid off and tutors are facing reduced hours. La Trobe’s vice-chancellor has already cut all ‘non-essential’ casual workers, and announced that a further 600-800 jobs are at risk

This confirms the way management will be dealing directly with our education. Already many universities have declared cuts to courses. The University of Sydney will be cutting a third of its arts courses. At the same time, the University of Tasmania announced cuts to an astonishing 75% of its available courses. Staff conditions affect student conditions: the less staff there are, the fewer courses which can be run, and the less money that can go into each faculty budget. The reduction in staff hours translates into more and more students crammed into massive tutorials, where they will have fewer contact hours and less time with tutors. To continue these massive attacks against staff would alone fundamentally change our education for the worse.

To be clear, when we talk about management who are implementing cuts, we are talking about people that lead institutions with net worths in the billions. They have reserved surpluses that can be unleashed and enormous assets that can be borrowed against to rectify revenue in this time. Universities can pay for this without the entire sector collapsing. The central problem is that, for management, doing this would not guarantee the most amount of money is made for higher education. 

This is the first phase of an overall restructuring to ensure universities remain as profitable as they can be by placing the burden of paying for it on students and staff. Rank and file workers in the NTEU are putting up heroic resistance to the attacks by management and the selling out of their union leaders. But students will have to fight just as hard to turn the tide, not only against university management but also the Federal Government.

The Liberals have had their eyes on attacking higher education for years. This started with Tony Abbott’s 2014 austerity budget, which proposed far-reaching changes to education, the most severe being the deregulation of fees. But the Liberals’ plan was destroyed at the time by a mass campaign fueled heavily by students. Since then, the Liberals have attempted and at times succeeded in sneaking through parts of their plan. The Turnbull Government tried to cut the overall higher education budget by $2.8 billion in 2017. Meanwhile, later that year then-Treasurer Scott Morrison was successful in unilaterally cutting the budget by $2.1 Billion, lowering the threshold for HECs repayment, and capping HECs subsidies. This meant that some domestic students were now being charged full fees alongside international students. Although they snuck through changes that have made learning conditions thoroughly worse, they have yet to go on the offensive as fully as Abbott did, fearful of provoking the same response from students. More specifically, they have yet to implement their overall vision of turning higher education into a purely user-pays system. A system where the profits of the university are the absolute priority and the teaching of students is last. A system more like the United States, where the rich can pay for Ivy League education while the poor get funnelled into degree factories, and crippled with student debt for years. 

This crisis can potentially change that. For ordinary people, COVID-19 is a disaster, but for the rich and their defenders, it presents opportunities. Specifically, if the lockdown and the travel bans tear through the profits of higher education, it might compel the restructures by universities that the Liberals would love to see, provide the drastic conditions for more funding cuts, or even resurrect fee deregulation as a solution to this revenue crisis. Look at how the Liberals have responded to every concern of the airline industry, with a quick bailout package when things looked bad and possibly more measures to come. In contrast, the universities have had a different treatment; the relief package that proposed only up to $100 million for each university and college was immediately considered inadequate to carry campuses through the crisis. The JobKeeper plan was tweaked to not apply to universities, which has angered not only workers but many heads of universities. The plan seems clear so far: let the universities bleed, because the measures and circumstances created in this crisis might just be in the Liberals’ favour.

The rich and the Government should pay for the crisis

 To the university managers or the Liberal government, our education is solely dependent on the turnover of profit it makes for the rich. We need to fight for an alternative that ensures students and staff don’t pay for a crisis so the rich can still make profits. Instead, it should be the rich and the politicians that pay for the essential rights and conditions of students and workers.

The unprecedented nature of this crisis does not mean we should take equally unprecedented concessions. Profits and education are always antithetical, crisis or otherwise. Cuts to education are the basis upon which massive revenues of universities have been sustained for so long. Different universities slash budgets, fire staff and cut courses all the time. It was only two years ago that Monash cut the budget of the Arts Faculty by a third, which resulted in sessional tutors losing jobs, reductions in contact hours, the massive ‘lectorials’ in the Learning and Teaching Building, and more online learning. The more cost-effective the education, the more money that can be spent on lucrative adventures, whether it’s the advertising that cultivates pristine images of elite universities, or the expansive investment portfolios that universities have in stock and property markets. And don’t forget, something must always pay for the hideously large salaries of the university managers. For these very people that run universities, it’s only continued profits that determine education, and explain the constant restructuring against our right to proper education. This crisis only intensifies this dynamic. Any concessions that we make now will not be given back later, but will simply give the Government or management the confidence to take more from us.

We must fight now and organise in every way we can to disrupt and stop the agenda of universities and the Government. Our most fundamental demand is that students and workers be prioritised rather than profits. This crisis is no excuse to attack our education. There should be no cuts to courses or funding. We need to demand there be no job losses, and no concessions on wages or conditions for all university workers. Casuals lined up to have their contracts renewed should be safeguarded, and all workers that have already lost their jobs should be reinstated.

 We don’t deserve to pay for the revenue crisis because we are already paying for the COVID crisis. Workers and students will be disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The Government must provide full income support to all students throughout the crisis, including granting international students access to all the same welfare provisions as a domestic student. The Government must immediately bail out the university sector and make education free for all students. Indeed, while the Government has bailed out wealthy corporations that could waive losses for the entire year, students have seen no difference in their fees, despite everything being shifted to online for isolation. 

Students have taken up a fight like this before and won. When Tony Abbott announced his budget in 2014, the campus erupted into weekly mass protests and public meetings of students coordinating across the country, ultimately making the budget untenable. It was this radical involvement of students that not only highlighted the attacks on education, but also popularised the sentiment that the budget be rejected entirely. Abbott’s austerity never got through and the Liberals have not been as bold since, fearing another swift retaliation. We can do this again and win if we organise now and into the future.

We are a part of the new national campaign called Students Organising Resistance in the Pandemic (SOR), working in solidarity with students and staff. The purpose of our group at Monash is to help build an uncompromising fight against the Government and management, and save education during this crisis. We are organising both at Monash and across the country. 

In our positions on the Student Affairs and Environment and Social Justice committees, we wrote a motion to the Monash Student Council condemning the cuts and raising our demands,  for the purpose of getting the whole Student Union on board with the fight. While we are organising Monash students to join SOR’s National Day of Online Action on May 22, a day for students to get together online across the country to make their demands heard against the agenda of university cuts.

We can’t just do this ourselves. Our strength comes in the numbers we have against the handful that dictate our education. We ask students to join the NDA and get involved with the campaign, for a fight that will determine our education for the next generation. Many have been correct in saying that there is no returning to normal after the pandemic, and this is especially the case with university. Only it is up to us what that new normal will be. The Government and management are working for education to be a corporate entity, where degrees come at the expense of profits. We must build an opposition to this and fight for education for its own sake, for a system that benefits workers and students, not the rich. 

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