The Guardian • Issue #2069


Can you guess what these numbers represent?

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2069

Two. One million, thirty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine. Thirty seven.

We won’t leave you in suspense. Two is the number of years since the last RMIT staff agreement expired.  Ruthless university management has been in no hurry to negotiate a new one. $1,039,999 is the number of dollars the Vice Chancellor of Swinburne university is paid per year. Running a university is a big and complex job, but the Vice Chancellor is paid more than twice what the Prime Minister gets for running a country of 25 million people, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Swinburne staff have voted no confidence in their well-paid leader. 37 is a much smaller number, but also more affecting – it’s the number of short-term contracts Melbourne University law researcher Sophie Lamond has been on since 2017, and it’s the reason Sophie is on strike now, along with a lot of other National Tertiary Education Union members.

After all these numbers, a lot of people tune out, especially if they’re not in academia or education.  Things are tough all over, and academics are famous for leading cushy lives. If that’s what you’re thinking, think again. The situation in education affects all of us, including those of us who never want to set foot in a classroom again.

It’s true that things are tough all over, and that job insecurity is rampant. Capital always looks for a higher rate of profit, and the best ways to get that are by paying workers less, and/or making them work harder. Universities don’t just happen to be insecure places to work with ridiculously overpaid management with no interest in staff welfare. They became like that as a result of policy choices. Universities used to be seen as something outside of the rough and tumble of capitalist competition, but that was before neo-liberal governments decided that absolutely nothing could be outside the glorious free markets. Universities were underfunded, and forced to bow to market ideology.  Conservative Liberal-National governments gave universities incentives to casualise staff, leading to the situation we have now, where Sophie Lamond’s six years of job insecurity is the rule, not the exception.

The situation inside the campuses mirrored the situation on the outside. Attacks on worker job security by conservative governments and very little action to reverse those attacks by cautious and capital-serving Labor governments. Karl Marx warned a long time ago that capital doesn’t stop until ‘all that is solid melts into air’. Universities, for all their faults, used to feel ‘sacred’, dedicated to knowledge. Now they are hotbeds of worker exploitation, driving out talented and knowledgeable people, selling students short, and oppressing staff who can’t or refuse to leave.

Everyone should care about the disputes on university campuses for several reasons. A lot of people go to university now. They deserve better than harried staff with not enough time to teach properly. A lot of people have children who go through tertiary education. All of us at some time or other need the knowledge and skills that people learn at university.

Another reason we should care about university pay is that if we work for a living, we are in the same boat as the lecturers and tutors who are on strike around the country. Short term contracts are coming for everyone – John Howard overreached when he tried to introduce Work Choices, but the minds and the money behind that doomed attempt to put every working Australian on an individual contract are still hard at work on the neoliberal project.

Job insecurity and wage theft is a choice capitalism makes. Universities, like all our workplaces could be so much better than they are.

Support university staff! Support your own union! Join the Communist Party of Australia!

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