The Rot at the Heart of Higher Education

24 November 2020

When my mum went to university, it was free. The golden years, from when Gough Whitlam abolished university fees in 1974, to her second year, were a time when anyone and everyone with interest could get their education. This was also when most politicians pushing through the funding cuts went to university.

Over the decades since, the higher education sector has suffered from the creep of privatisation and market-driven “learning”. A house of cards has been built on the backs of staff casualisation, cutting of government funding and financial abuse of international students. With the COVID-19 crisis, that house of cards is tumbling down. The profit shortfall is being thrust upon staff and students. Our vice-chancellor Duncan Maskell is making a hefty $1,495,000 a year. His pay evens out to be about $30,000 a fortnight—the amount a casual tutor makes in a year. Meanwhile, hundreds of teaching staff and subjects are slated to be axed to make up for the shortfall.

The University of Melbourne staff have voted down a proposal from the administration to sacrifice their working conditions to save jobs. This is after the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) leadership dropped the national framework to similarly disadvantage staff to save existing jobs. Students have played an important supportive role, going to rallies and digital campaigns and gathering data on the cuts.

In the words of my favourite tutor, “The University has made us disposable”.

He has lost his job, with barely any notice after teaching seven subjects all semester. He does not know what the future holds for him or his colleagues and whether he will teach ever again. Many subjects are being cut and the academic support staff are also under threat.

Additionally, the cuts to university funding have been announced. Not just the massive 113% hike in fees for arts degrees, but for all courses. Even those subject areas where fees aren’t increasing or decreasing are not being funded. These fee changes are “budget neutral” which means that the cost from student fees is being put on the University, rather than any form of government subsidies. This means that the brunt of the fee cuts will be borne by the University (read: the staff and “non-essential” subject areas). Even if they don’t charge us, current students, this fee hike, we owe it to future students.

We as students need to fight back against these attacks along with the staff. 450 jobs have been cut and more are probably going to follow. We need to organise against these attacks together with staff and come out in solidarity with them to fight each new cut. Joining campaigns, mass emailing, attending rallies, contacting your local MPs and the university administration. We need to work together now, for staff for the sake of the kinds of skills arts degrees bring into society, for future students.

Staff working conditions are student learning conditions, and student fees are staff livelihoods. We’re in this together, and we have a sector to save.

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