For the last 30 years, the Australian university sector has sat on a delicate financial balance. With international students being relied upon to support profitability, this arrangement is about to come crashing down. The gravity of the crises that plague our economy are too drastic, too far-reaching, for the current model of the university to survive. As the entire sector goes under in the coming crashes, an even more corporate, even more expensive future lies ahead. We are about to witness the single greatest shake-up of our universities’ business models that we have ever seen, and it will cost students and staff dearly.
We are witnessing the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s. As it follows, the first thing on the minds of governments around the world is to try and salvage as much as possible from economic destruction. When entire industries are going under, saving a buck wherever possible becomes top priority. In simple terms, this will mean the restructuring of major industries and attempts to pass the costs onto workers. We can expect austerity and mass unemployment for the working-class, and bailouts for major corporations.
As a major part of the Australian economy, the universities sector will have to reassess its business model. Australian universities have relied upon a steady cash flow from higher-paying international students to balance their budgets for too long. The effects an extended border closure will have on universities cannot be overstated. In total, universities around the country have predicted that they will likely lose around 40% of income. Never before has the universities sector experienced such a great shock, its symptoms will be harsh and will reach every single campus across the country.
As universities are run like privately-owned businesses, they will be forced to find new ways to remain as profitable as they can. Money will be saved everywhere it can be, and anything that can be done more cheaply will be done. While it is unclear how exactly each university will be affected, the most likely changes will include staff cuts, increased class sizes, course/unit cuts, and more corporate ties.
The quality of students’ education is being left uncertain. It is unjust for students to pay exorbitant fees, only to then have their university ruin the quality of their education. Students studying less profitable degrees, i.e. the arts, will be most affected. These changes will be far-reaching and long-lasting.
University administrations have wasted no time in implementing these policies, already across the country, tens of thousands of jobs are being cut, with many more yet to come. The peak industry group, Universities Australia, is already predicting as many as 21000 job cuts. The University of Tasmania is planning to cut 394 courses next year. And this is only the beginning, the assault on education quality will soon reach all campuses across the country. By the time university life returns to normal and classes are opened again, we will likely be welcomed back to a university missing its much-needed teaching and support staff or even many units and courses students had previously studied.
In a country as rich as Australia, it is unacceptable that the prospects of millions of students are simply left to the whims of the market, that an institution as fundamental as a university could just be forgotten about and left to deteriorate because of a shock to the wider stock markets. Millions of students rely upon universities for the education they need to find jobs or to study for higher qualifications. Education is not non-essential. The university that we deserve is one where all are free to explore all ideas, where all research and theories are free and available for all to study. Just a month ago, our government was able to find tens of billions of dollars to bail out major corporations from economic ruin, even though we had been told that that money did not exist previously. It is possible to have a publicly funded universities sector. It is possible to have universities based around education and research, rather than profit-seeking.
In fighting for this vision, unionism is incredibly important. The National Tertiary Education Union has the responsibility of mobilising university staff to retaliate against attacks such as these. The union has great potential to influence university policy when they act and should be the most important factor in organising resistance to corporate attacks. Instead, the leadership of the NTEU has been meeting with Universities Australia and have decided to cave in to all of their demands. This ‘union leadership’ argues that all university staff should accept a 15% wage cut so that 12,000 jobs can be saved, this does nothing to protect the additional tens of thousands who will inevitably lose their jobs regardless. This approach gives far too much to the corporate university administrations that will take this as a precedent to roll back pay and conditions even further.
In opposition to this, a substantial campaign calling for no concessions has emerged. The NTEU Fightback campaign calls for no concessions, this means no job cuts, no pay cuts, and fighting the corporatisation of universities. Over 11000 rank-and-file NTEU members (non-leadership) have joined the campaign, which leads to giving a no vote in the referendum of NTEU members on the leadership’s proposal.
In taking this fight forward, students should be prepared to defend staff and their quality of education. The drive to suck as much profit out of universities as possible will only grow stronger and stronger in the coming period. We cannot let our university lives and our education be ruined by the stock market. Education and research should take precedence over private profits. If the government has enough money to bail-out major private corporations, then it has enough money to save the jobs of thousands of university staff and save students’ education.