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Students and Staff: One Struggle Against Casualisation

Students and Staff: One Struggle Against Casualisation

WORDS BY NIC AVERY

At today’s Open Day, as the University of Sydney unveiled its new degree, the nebulously-titled “Bachelor of Advanced Studies”, the National Tertiary Education Union went on strike.*

The day was surreal. Management types in sharp suits were wooing prospective students and their families to the beat of USU-hired DJs. And Jordi Austin, director of student services and woman of the people, brisked around in Howard-esque sporting attire, and donning a t-shirt with Koori paintings and “MOBS” written clearly on the back. It was, after all, a Saturday.

Cutting through the fanfare, the pomp and the prestige, were the 100-odd academics and general staff, workers in various levels of precarious employment, uniformed in the colours of their union, purple and white, and emblazoned with the menacing slogan, “staff working conditions are student learning conditions.”

The staff had formed pickets at the various entrances to the university’s main campus. They were making sure that visitors and potential benefactors of the university were made aware of the real source of value of the institution -- the unpaid labour of an increasingly casualised workforce.

Today was the first of two strikes that the NTEU has planned -- the second is on Wednesday, September 13 -- in response to the University’s bad faith negotiating in this round of bargaining over the Enterprise Agreement.
 

These strikes were called because the University has refused to come to the table on key issues for staff.

On pay, they have offered staff a pay cut in real wage terms. While inflation in Sydney is 2.2%, and comparable public sector employees see average wage increases of 2.4%, the University has offered a meagre pay rise of below 2% over the life of the agreement.

On job security, the University has refused to pay staff the dignity and respect of offering the right to internal redeployment when faced with redundancies caused by the ensuing faculty restructures.

And on casual rights, the University continues to discriminate against them by denying casuals the same rate of superannuation as permanent employees and by denying them the ability to take paid sick leave.
 

Standing on the pickets today, as I attempted to communicate the NTEU demands to the next batch of bleary-eyed potential students -- whom I suspect guarded little flames of optimism beneath their nihilistic stares -- I reflected on the time I had spent coming onto campus for the first time at an Open Day in Melbourne. It made me reflect, too, and with a bitter sense of loss, on my since-destroyed dream of not only walking through the halls of a prestigious university, but of actually working in one.

* * *

For years, I have been an aspiring academic. I harboured dreams of doing a PhD, of learning and working in a field that I love, and of being a part of an educational community. Over the course of doing honours in philosophy in Melbourne, I came to view this path in rather cynical terms. Academia, I thought, was an intensely hierarchical and brutal pursuit. I came to see that success, or even survival, in this field depended upon ruthless self-promotion and thinly disguised hubris.

I now know, of course, that this is not because academia attracts particularly selfish or sophistical people. Academia, rather, is a terribly precarious vocation.

Over the last few decades, the broader labour market changes in Australia have seen the decline of medium-skilled manufacturing jobs and the explosion of the service sector -- low-skilled jobs in retail, hospitality and health services.

These changes were contemporaneous with the federal government’s attacks on labour in the name of ‘flexibility’. Unions were broadly attacked by Howard’s Workchoices program in 2006, which institutionalised the individualisation of workplace relations. In the tertiary sector, however, the assault was a year prior. In 2005 the Higher Education Workplace Relations Requirements (HEWRRs) were rolled out, removing regulations surrounding casual employment and limiting the role of union representatives in negotiating for working conditions.

The effect of HEWRRs was to enable Universities to increasingly casualise their workforce. The trend continues. As the federal government proposes more cuts to the tertiary sector in 2017, Vice Chancellors say that their hands are tied and that they can’t afford to give staff a pay rise or secure, ongoing work.

In tertiary education, the situation is grim. A full 40 per cent of the higher education sector is employed in conditions considered insecure (http://www.nteu.org.au/women/article/It%27s-about-time-VCs-said-No-to-funding-cuts-and-Yes-to-decent-jobs-%28Editorial%2C-Connect-10-02%29-19837).

As May, Gale and Campbell write, “Casual employees are entitled to an hourly wage (sometimes with a casual loading) but very little else. They are excluded for example from almost all leave entitlements, rights to notice in case of dismissal, severance pay, and most forms of protection against ‘unfair dismissal’” (http://www.nteu.org.au/library/view/id/1874).

Casuals at Sydney Uni do not receive adequate superannuation, they do not receive sick leave, and they are extremely limited in their prospects for career advancement.

“It used to be that tutoring was a kind of indenture, a poorly paid but pleasant part of postgraduate study, valuable experience on the path to an academic career … [now it] leads to nothing” (Evans in May, Gale and Campbell 2008).

* * *

One of the key demands of the NTEU concerns casual rights. It is on this point that the struggles of postgrad students and academics most clearly align, and especially so considering that the two roles are often fulfilled by the same flesh and blood body. But the alignment of struggles runs deeper than this. The interests of research students, coursework students, and staff, both academic and professional, align in the NTEU’s campaign for fair working conditions.
 

Whilst many postgraduate students at our university are early career or aspiring academics in research degrees, the vast majority are coursework students. Because the market tells us that we need not one but two degrees in order to be considered employable, people turn to coursework postgraduate study to specialise in a vocation or do further learning. These degrees are highly unregulated, and are the cornerstone of the University’s business model.

Of the University’s 23,000 postgrad coursework students, 43% are full fee paying international students. International education is a massive industry; it is Australia’s third highest export, behind coal and iron ore. These students live in incredibly precarious situations. Besides facing subtle and sometimes pronounced racism on the streets and on campus, international students face exorbitant university fees (up to three times domestic student fees), exploitation by opportunistic employers, difficulties dealing with immigration authorities, difficulty finding affordable housing and health care, and are not even considered eligible for a concession fair on public transport in NSW.

The corporate business model of the University is failing international students. It is failing, too, their domestic counterparts. The participation of people from low socio-economic and marginalised backgrounds in postgraduate study is very low.

But not only are poor students locked out of tertiary education, so too are women and queer folk. As trans, non-binary, bisexual and women students come to see that sexual assault and harassment is a fact of life in their time at university, Sydney University is systematically locking them out of accessible education as it prioritises prestige and profit. It is still yet to commit to adopting best practice standards for prevention and response to sexual assault.

At SUPRA, our caseworkers are themselves stretched with a huge workload. In 2008, they saw 400 cases of students seeking academic advocacy, legal, housing, immigration and financial support. In 2016, they saw 900.

This is a sign that postgraduate students are desperate for support in getting through their degrees. It is a sign of the inadequacy of the University’s centralisation of student services, and a sign that students are not getting enough support from overworked academics. Indeed, in the last 10 years at Sydney University, student numbers have increased by 31% while staff numbers have only increased by 15%.

Students should not blame university staff for this failure, for the responsibility lies squarely at the feet of University management.

When students do not get enough time with their teachers, when we witness our educational content moving online, and when we receive late or insufficient feedback, this is not a reflection of our teachers’ effort or ability. It is a reflection of their working conditions.

Better pay and working conditions for staff means smaller class sizes, better quality teaching and staff with more time for students. As found on the t-shirts of the unionists of today’s strike: staff working conditions are student learning conditions.

The demands of the NTEU are not lofty, they are not entitled -- they are basic and they are fair. In 2013, the strikes were successful in securing improved pay and working conditions for staff at Sydney. In 2017, they are necessary.
 

It was heartening to see the strength of the union today in standing up for their rights. Its effectiveness, however, is still yet to be seen. Personally, I am not optimistic that management will come to the table any time soon on the issues of pay, job security, and casual rights. Undoubtedly, the fight will go on.

When the staff strike again in week seven of this semester, Wednesday September 13, students must stand with them. On this day, many of our classes will be cancelled. As students, we can make a simple and minimal sacrifice: we can refuse to come to class, we can stay at home and we can avoid the university. While staff risk pay and the prospect of continued employment when they strike, it is the least we can do to help.

* All views expressed here are my own.

Nic Avery is a student representative at the Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association and an associate member of the National Tertiary Education Union.

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