The Guardian • Issue #2018

Universities suffer epidemic of insecure work

La Trobe University, Bundoora. Photo: Nadia.saadatmand – (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Job insecurity in universities is reaching record levels. According to a recent report, one third of employees working in a university are casual or contract workers, and the insecurity of work in the sector falls disproportionately on women, who make up to fifty-eight per cent of university staff.

According to the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), at the University of Melbourne, around forty-seven per cent of staff are casual, with another twenty-seven per cent being fixed-term contract workers. In the lead of the Enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) negotiations, the University of Melbourne branch of the NTEU is calling on the University to provide better job security for all of its workers, by improving the right to conversion for casuals and fixed term staff and an end to forced redundancies.

Nowhere is job insecurity more acutely felt than in scientific research, where the “gig economy” is creeping into the way researchers work. Australia’s “dysfunctional” research funding model is leaving career research scientists without funding for months on end, forcing them into alternative work to make ends meet.

A lack of funding for research, heavy casualisation, and endemic wage theft are the realities for those in the tertiary education sector. Eleven Victorian universities are under investigation for the Fair Work Ombudsman for wage theft. At RMIT, Melbourne, Swinburne, and Monash, the rate of insecure work is over fifty per cent. Australia lags behind in research funding, spending just 1.8 per cent of its GDP on research per year compared to an average of 2.5 per cent in other OECD countries.

On a very basic level, all workers deserve secure work and fair conditions. Past articles in the Guardian have illustrated again and again that wage theft is capitalism working just as it is supposed to. But it is no accident that this particular crisis is occurring in the tertiary education sector. Ideologically, this is a dangerous state of affairs. As Ben Schneiders astutely pointed out in a recent investigation by The Age, universities are “short of political friends.” Over the past forty years, universities have been strategically defunded, especially in the arts and social sciences.

At the time of the last mass defunding in 2020, when fee restructuring increased the price of humanities subjects by up to 113 per cent, critics cited a long history of “hostility [by] conservative governments and critics who saw the humanities as generally antagonistic to their political interests.”

It is not in the interests of the state to fund research which undermines or discredits its political agenda. The humanities are just the most obvious example of this. One does not have to think very far back to Scott Morrison’s rejection of the “history wars,” rejecting postcolonial historical analysis which exposed the ongoing impacts of the Australian government on Indigenous Australians.

Adequate funding, insecure work, and fair pay for university staff is therefore an issue with multiple political dimensions. But workers have power. Multiple universities in Victoria are in the process of EBA negotiations. RMIT is refusing to come to the bargaining table, while threatening staff with legal action for refusing to work unpaid hours. RMIT’s response is telling: it shows that they cannot function without the labour of university staff. It is time now for the workers to take advantage of that power to force universities to the bargaining table and win better conditions. Workers in the sector must organise to fight for their rights and stop university bosses and the government from stripping away their hard fought conditions.

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