New Economy Journal

In University Education as in Many Other Industries, COVID-19 is a Crisis of Casualisation

Volume 2, Issue 5

October 20, 2020

By - Kelsey Buchanan

Cover photo by Vadim Sherbakov on Unsplash
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[1] Impact of COVID on higher education
[2] The commodification of higher education left universities structurally vulnerable to shocks
[3] The staff that perform the university’s most essential work are the hardest hit – and this is by design
[4] Higher education in the recovery

For anyone with an interest in the higher education system today, the anxiety is palpable.

The ‘Job-Ready Graduates’ package has passed the Senate while universities, instead of speaking out, seemed content to bargain with the government and trade off affordable higher education for negligible promises of extra student places or any degree of funding certainty. The bill would see a decrease in government funding per student place, a 113% hike in the price of most Arts degrees, and students who fail first-year subjects cut off from government-subsidised fees and HELP loans.

These changes are elitist and immoral. They would put university seemingly out of reach for many young working-class Australians and are a threat to the quality of our higher education. All this promises serious long-term damage to a sector that contributes the most to the economy of any service industry as well as immeasurable public goods in the form of skilled and educated graduates and their many contributions to our society.

[1] Impact of COVID on higher education

Yet this bill is just the final straw for a sector already badly crippled by the impact of COVID-19. Universities are facing budgetary shortfalls in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and the government’s promise of an extra $1 billion for research pales in comparison to modelling that suggests the closure of international borders may lose the sector somewhere between $10-20 billion over the next few years. Executive pay cuts and attempts to push through wage decreases did not stop the tide of redundancies. Some 5,000 permanent positions have already been lost, a number that the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) suspects could still double by the end of the year. Universities sought forced and ‘voluntary’ redundancies with single announcements as large as 493 at UNSW, 450 at the University of Melbourne, 419 at Deakin and up to 500 at UTS.

And these are only permanent positions. Given the highly precarious nature of the workforce in universities, it is clear that true job losses are far higher. It is hard to guess at how many sessional teachers employed on semester-by-semester contracts were quietly not rehired come semester two, but we do know that universities have spent the year planning to cut their losses in this department. Ongoing staff at Melbourne last semester were implored to take on the maximum teaching load legally allowed to pave the way for not rehiring the sessionals who perform the bulk of this work. Many others are dropping subject offerings: the University of Sydney’s Arts and Social Sciences faculty was told to cut a third of its classes while Macquarie will discontinue entire degrees in STEM fields in addition to half its arts majors. Class sizes have also mysteriously grown: a UNSW Casuals Network report found that they increased by an average of 13.8% this year alone, including some ‘tutorials’ of up to 150 students.[1] It is not known how many casuals will have lost work at universities this year, but estimates place total job losses across the sector as high as 30,000 or more than 1 in 10 – far in advance of the 5,000 we know about for sure.

Why was the higher education sector so uniquely vulnerable, so quick to fold under the fiscal pressures of COVID-19? Much of this is evidently due to the sudden withdrawal of the international student market. The government’s decision to specifically exclude public universities from the JobKeeper scheme also did not help. However, the root causes of the crisis in higher education date back to the 1980s, and in many ways it is a structural consequence of successive government decisions to withdraw financial support from the sector. As elsewhere, the pandemic only exploited and intensified pre-existing problems and inequities. This also means that the solution will be no quick fix. Addressing these problems will require a radical restructuring of higher education funding, a much broader push back against the increasingly precarious working conditions that characterise neoliberal capitalism today, and a reimagining of what universities are good for and who, therefore, should pay for them.

[2] The commodification of higher education left universities structurally vulnerable to shocks

Following the Whitlam government’s decision to scrap tuition fees, higher education was almost entirely funded by public money and institutions that received government grants were forbidden from charging their students.[2] The 1980s, however, saw an effective revolution in the funding of higher education led by the Hawke Labour government and then-Education Minister John Dawkins. Fees for international students were first introduced, followed by a $250 ‘administration fee’ for domestic students. In 1989 postgraduate course fees were deregulated and HECS was introduced,[3] allowing governments to incrementally reduce their proportion of contributions to student fees. The government wanted to enrol more students and expand Australia’s higher education sector into a profitable, internationally-competitive industry – a project that, despite recognising the economic and other benefits that would result, it did not wish to bankroll.[4] Universities needed to become more self-sufficient and find their own sources of revenue.

In order to achieve this, they were to be restructured as quasi-privatised corporate-style entities and become more ‘efficient’ or risk losing what government funding still remained.[5] Dawkins introduced economies of scale into higher education by forcing mergers of smaller institutions into giant universities, then told them to invest more in strengthening their upper- and middle-management structures to monitor performance and ‘foster efficiency’ while making the rest of their workforce more ‘flexible’ (read: casualised).[6] Institutions should be made to compete for funding.[7] They needed to bring their “enthusiasm and entrepreneurial flair” to the task of seeking revenue from student contributions or selling research and consultancy services to industry.[8] These, in Dawkins’ words, were “opportunities” that had “yet to be fully exploited in Australia”, and any additional government funding might disincentivise universities from doing so.[9]

Students, for their part, should be more than happy to pay for their degrees given the great personal benefit they derive from the opportunity to attain a high-paying job, and the government had no business bankrolling their entry into the professional elite. This might have made some semblance of sense three decades ago when just 7% of working-age Australians held a degree – much less so now that over a third of young men and nearly half of young women have a diploma-level or higher qualification, and returns in terms of earnings and career prospects are far from certain.

Unsurprisingly, some perverse incentives were introduced into university funding models by the deregulation of international student fees coupled with the incremental withdrawal of government contributions to domestic tuition and research. Universities compete with one another to sell degrees to international students at prices as high as the market can sustain in order to cross-subsidise research and domestic student places, since otherwise they could not fund quality intellectual output or offer their students the world-class education they fairly expect. In Australia’s wealthiest and most prestigious universities this dependence is deepest: international students account for over a third of revenue at UNSW, UTS, Melbourne, Sydney and Monash. All this has left even the most well-off universities incredibly vulnerable to financial shock should this revenue stream threaten to dry up as it has this year. This was well known and warned about long before COVID-19.[10]

[3] The staff that perform the university’s most essential work are the hardest hit – and this is by design

Government proportions of higher education funding have fallen from 89% at the beginning of the 1980s to at best around half today. Universities may well find alternative sources of revenue – indeed some have been very successful at doing so, which to the current government only signals that “there’s a bit of room there” for even deeper cuts – but these sources are not especially predictable or secure. When the only thing certain about government funding is that it will decrease, it is not hard to explain universities orienting themselves toward the market while seeking to cut the costs of delivering their services. It is a structural consequence of government reforms aimed at making higher education more ‘competitive’ and lighter on the budget. What it does not so easily explain is why the staff that perform the most essential work of the university are today the hardest hit.

The reality is that, for a long time, it has been casual staff that are there to cushion the blow of financial shortfalls – not, say, the capital works budget. Casual employment is very useful for offsetting risks to company bottom lines. Hiring a casual to teach costs perhaps about a third of the price of hiring someone in a permanent full time position.[11] They can be hired at the last minute depending on student enrolment numbers and are easily dispensable when they are no longer needed. Universities are deeply, structurally dependent on fixed-term staff and semester-by-semester sessionals to meet fluctuating demand and mitigate financial risk.[12] Casuals are, as the UNSW casuals network puts it, budgetary “shock-absorbers”.[13] Again the situation is perversely the worst in some of the most well-off institutions: before COVID-19 72.9% of staff at the University of Melbourne were in insecure work, followed by 72.8% at Monash.

This has produced and reproduced deep structural inequalities in the workforce. Casualisation has created a ‘lost generation’,[14] an ‘underclass’[15] of long-term casual academics aspiring towards a career in an industry where precious few exist, marginalised by their institutions and with no stable income or job security, performing the hard work of academia but enjoying none of the perks. They are disproportionately young and disproportionately female, a trend which is only worsening as more women pursue postgraduate research degrees at the same time as fewer ongoing positions are available.[16] The constant insecurity, doubt about their near-term future, scarce prospects for career advancement and fear that their industry does not value them and might abandon them completely all take a toll on their mental health. Many are forced to work multiple jobs just to survive. Academic casuals share much in common with the precariat of other service industries, the most obvious difference being how many of them hold PhDs.

Also like other casuals, the insecurity of their employment makes them acutely vulnerable to wage theft. For sessional teachers – who make up the majority of casual university staff[17] – underpayment is built into their contracts. They receive a fixed rate of two to three hours’ worth of pay for a one hour class, which is meant to be enough to cover everything from lesson preparation and familiarising themselves with set readings to student consultations and pastoral care. Some are not paid to attend lectures. In Melbourne’s Faculty of Arts, for example, lecture attendance is not formally compulsory and nor is it paid, but tutors are ‘encouraged’ to attend and realistically could not deliver quality tutorials if they do not. Wholly unreasonable fixed rates or strict ‘performance expectations’ for assessment marking and feedback have also been commonplace.

Unpaid work is the expectation and the norm in academic culture.

For these reasons among others, many major universities including UNSW, UWA, UQ, UTS, RMIT, Sydney, Melbourne, Monash and Macquarie have all been embroiled in wage theft disputes. The current backpay case at the University of Melbourne involves an estimated $6 million amongst 1,500 academics in four faculties, with individual claims averaging at around $10,000 over the last six years. This is Australia’s wealthiest university. It lists $4.43 billion in reserves, has $4.2 billion earmarked for capital works, and its Vice Chancellors have been known to take home upwards of $1.5 million a year. It also has the highest proportion of its workforce on insecure contracts of any university in the country.

In short, casual staff have been used by their employers to manage short-term fluctuations in student enrolment numbers and to shift the institution’s financial risks and burdens onto its employees. Part of how universities achieve this is by stealing from them. Casuals perform the majority of the essential work of teaching at the undergraduate level. That in return they are treated as collateral, easily sacrificed in times of financial hardship, is justifiably hard to swallow at the best of times. It is harder still when their employers spend billions on capital works, have enormous cash reserves and pay their Vice Chancellors two to three times more than the Prime Minister.

All this is made possible because academic work is a labour of love. As Dawkins wrote back in 1987, “financial remuneration is not the only form of reward for academics. The satisfaction that teaching and/or research provides” and “the community standing such positions attract” are “already inducements to employment in academic positions”.[18] Fair pay and job security are what – a privilege?

[4] Higher education in the recovery

As elsewhere, COVID-19 has laid bare the insecurities and deep structural inequities that plague the higher education sector, but it did not cause them. That universities have long been structurally over-reliant on international student fees and insecure labour is not news, and the NTEU and casuals networks springing up in universities all over the country have been protesting unfair working conditions for many years with little success. It is those problems – over-casualisation and wholly unsustainable funding structures – that allowed COVID-19 to visit financial ruin on our universities, decimating the workforce and the quality and diversity of educational offerings to an extent that could take decades to rebuild.

Yet it is imperative that higher education be a central priority in our social and economic recovery from COVID-19. According to Universities Australia, the higher education sector accounted for over 250,000 full-time-equivalent jobs and contributed $41 billion to the economy in 2018; plus, the government receives a considerable return on its investment in universities, including by the taxes paid by graduates and the economic benefits of research and development. For those reasons, higher education could be funded by government and taxpayer money. It should be funded this way because it is a good in itself. It produces skilled, well-educated, critical thinking individuals and good citizens, and it enriches our economic, social and cultural life immeasurably.

University education is not now and must not be allowed to become the exclusive purview of the elite. It rightly belongs to anyone who wants it, regardless of background. Further, it should be viewed not just as a private good that leads to higher wages for the individual (who is therefore responsible for paying for it), but rather as a public good that benefits society. We must also resist the government’s view that university is a job factory, and its only activities worth funding are those that reproduce the workforce needed to grease the wheels of capitalism and make Australia economically ‘competitive’ in the short term. This contributes to a disturbing trend in the marginalisation of the arts and humanities at a time where we need young people able to critically engage with and analyse our world, and it undermines the way we that we as a society should value education.

The recovery of the sector also must not come at the expense of our international students. Here again COVID-19 has laid bare the exploitation and disregard with which they have been treated by our university system. Young people from overseas cannot be expected to fund our higher education because the government does not think it worth the money.

The positive in all of this is that while the Dawkins reforms did not meet widespread public resistance owing to the relative exclusivity of university education, today more young Australians than ever hold degrees, more of them are culturally and linguistically diverse and most of them are women. University education is no longer just something enjoyed by the sons of managers and professionals. This leaves us in a stronger position than ever before to challenge the official narrative of what and for whom university is supposed to be good for and who should pay for it. It is also of some comfort that these issues are now receiving the media attention and public discussion that they need and deserve.

We have a responsibility not to stand by while governments and Vice Chancellors dismantle our universities. We all can resist in some way, whether as current or former students or staff, activists, unionists, parents, or just concerned citizens, and whether by organising or simply by reading and sharing. Within the NTEU, the push will come from the rank-and-file, since the national executive has shown as much interest this year in working with universities to negotiate away hard won rights and conditions as it has in saving its members’ jobs on their own terms. The resistance from members already has been strong, and they benefit from a wealth of intellectual resources and a strong belief in the importance of the work they do, but it is an uphill battle.

In higher education as in many other industries, COVID-19 is a crisis of casualisation, exposing pre-existing inequities and preying on insecure workers who have borne the brunt of job losses. What university workers face is one part of the broader struggle of trade unionism to uphold liveable working conditions under late-stage capitalism. Much more than that, it is part of all our aspirations for a society that looks after our basic needs and provides the conditions under which we can pursue personal fulfilment. It is difficult to say what that looks like exactly, but first we must demand it.


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