Jobs ‘disaster’ deepens at Australian universities

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Nearly one in five higher education workers in Australia lost their job in the 12 months to May of this year, according to a recent analysis from the Center for Future Work, and the toll continues to mount.

The report, titled “A Preventable Disaster: Pandemic Higher Education Job Losses and Their Consequences,” highlights how governments and employers were able to exploit the COVID-19 disaster to devastate education higher, to the detriment of staff and students. .

Main quadrangle of the University of Sydney [Credit: Jason Tong/Wikipedia]

The report estimates that more than 40,000 jobs were cut in just one year, from May 2020 to May 2021. This is the highest number of any non-farm industry to date, during the COVID-19 pandemic .

In fact, university job losses have been much worse this year than the first year of the pandemic. Now, according to the report, they mostly affect permanent and full-time positions, unlike last year when casual workers were the first affected by the attack between the government and the employer.

In 2021, “university administrations began to attack permanent positions with vengeance. Permanent year-over-year employment (defined as positions with entitlement to normal paid leave) in public higher education decreased by more than 34,000 jobs in the first semester of 2021. “

In the May 2021 quarter, as universities increased the hiring of casual workers, as a cheap and expandable workforce, permanent jobs accounted for all net job losses from l ‘last year.

In total, around 35,000 jobs were lost at public universities in May. More than 5,000 jobs have been lost in technical and further education colleges (TAFE) and other public vocational education institutions. But no overall job loss has occurred at private colleges, many of which received bailouts from the federal government through last year’s JobKeeper wage subsidy program.

National Union of Higher Education (NTEU) national president Alison Barnes issued a press release on the report saying: “The onus is now on vice-chancellors to scale up and secure jobs and careers. The pandemic should not be an excuse for further precariousness and wage theft. “

But that is exactly what is happening. Appeals to the very leadership making these cuts will do nothing to stop this offensive.

Last year, the NTEU itself calculated that up to 90,000 jobs could have been cut. The latest estimate seems to show that some of the losses may have been reduced, but only because casuals are being hired to replace permanent staff.

The truth is that the “catastrophe” documented in the report, commissioned by the NTEU, is an indictment of the unions in the sector, which opposed any unified national struggle of staff and students against this assault.

A so-called national NTEU ‘week of action’ from September 13-17 – scheduled to coincide with the report’s release – consisted mainly of helpless appeals to the vice-chancellors and the Liberal-National coalition government for increased funding to restore job losses. This was accompanied by appeals to university workers to support NTEU’s ongoing company negotiations with individual employers.

This corporate bargaining scheme, concocted by the Keating Labor Party government and the Australian Council of Trade Unions three decades ago, only serves to atomize workers. It ties them to demands for cuts in income and costs from “their” employer and locks them into anti-strike laws that were strengthened by the last labor government backed by unions from 2007 to 2013.

The NTEU and other unions are promoting the prospect of another Labor government, although Labor shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek told an elite business meeting last month that a government Labor would intensify the restructuring of higher education by business.

In his speech from August 16 to Australian Financial Review Conference on higher education, Plibersek said nothing about the destruction of jobs, let alone urging a Labor government to reverse the cuts. Instead, she echoed demands from the financial elite, highlighted by a recent plan released by global consulting giant EY, for the pandemic to be used to radically reshape higher education to meet demands. professional training and research requirements of large companies.

It was the Rudd-Gillard Labor government from 2007 to 2013, in which Plibersek was minister, which imposed the “education revolution”, characterized by a “demand-driven” system. Labor forced universities to compete for enrollment, especially in business-oriented courses, in order to survive financially, then cut multi-billion dollar university funding in 2012-13.

This system, which the coalition government has since maintained, has led universities to turn to international students paying full price, treating them like cash cows. In 2019-2020, international student tuition fees accounted for over $ 12 billion in revenue for Australian universities, which has almost quadrupled in the previous decade. Vocational education providers received an additional $ 2 billion per year in registration fees for international students.

When the pandemic hit, those revenues started to dry up, which became the pretext for the government-employer campaign to cut costs.

The NTEU actively facilitated this attack, despite anger and resistance from staff and students, who launched petitions against the demolition of jobs and courses at a number of universities, including La Trobe, Monash, Adelaide, the University of Western Australia and Sydney’s Macquarie. University.

The role of the NTEU was illustrated at Macquarie University, where, in addition to more than 300 job cuts in 2020, management used a ‘Hunger Games’ type operation to cut several dozen more positions this year, forcing educators to compete for survival.

A letter from the Macquarie branch of the NTEU to Bruce Dowton, the university’s vice-chancellor, did not demand that the layoffs be reversed. Instead, he “demanded” that the dismissed staff be given access to the information that led to the decision to abolish their posts, so that the “process” can be “transparent”.

In addition, the entire “dumping and filling” operation was carried out within the framework of the “change process” defined in NTEU’s company agreement with management.

These bitter experiences demonstrate that to fight the assault on public education, new organizations are needed – in the form of a network of grassroots committees, independent of trade unions.

Such committees would reject the whole framework of company agreements and establish a common cause among academics, students and all who work in schools and daycares. They would link up with all workers at the international level, who face similar critical struggles against the impact of the worsening global crisis, and discuss the need for an opposing socialist perspective: one that struggles for the complete reorganization of society for the benefit of all, not the skyrocketing wealth accumulation of billionaires.

Such a focus would provide the billions of dollars needed to establish free, high-quality education, from kindergarten to university, and the basic right of all education workers to full-time employment, with pay and decent conditions.


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