I’ll start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land we are gathered on and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. This land was never ceded. It is, always was, and always will be Aboriginal land.
It is such a privilege to be here with you, talking about education and organising for change – two of my passions. I feel really honoured to be the spokesperson on Education for The Australian Greens.
From our first steps to retirement, the opportunity to learn and discover unlocks our potential and helps us live a good life.
I have been involved with higher education and a proud, card-carrying member of the NTEU, for most of my adult life.
When I moved to Australia from Pakistan 26 years ago, the University of New South Wales was my first home – where I did my Masters, where I taught environmental engineering and where I completed my PhD. I spent 14 years at UNSW either as a student or an academic and have watched the sector change dramatically.
The state of universities
I’ve seen Universities become businesses where access to the privilege of education is being sold at a higher and higher price – the courses, the reputation, the buildings and a plush job are now all part and parcel of rampant marketization. Management has grown bigger and bigger, vice-chancellors salaries have exploded, and bottomless advertising budgets are deployed to show off new buildings and happy students. But we know this is too often detached from the reality of work, study and life on campus.
We see universities now in open commercial rivalry with one another - rivalry that fosters vicious cycles of corporatisation and cements the layers of management necessary to sustain competition for students and resources. The neoliberal system has pitted our education institutions against one another at the expense of their staff, students and of the university itself.
These days, when I meet university staff the first thing they often talk about is how low the morale of their colleagues is.
This is the consequence of decades of neoliberal policies across the Western world that have re-shaped the very purpose universities serve in our society. This reshaping is ideological in its essence, seeking to replace the collegial, public-focussed mission of the public university with a research and teaching agenda centred on production of work-ready students and profit-maximising commercialisation of research.
The challenges arising from this ideological shift are many and varied, but a few Australian examples illustrate the challenges we face.
First, funding has been structured to incentivise universities adopting the methods and cultures of corporate institutions, replacing formerly collegial and democratic academic governance. If the Liberals have their way, universities will be funded only to the extent they are able to contribute to the profit-driven economy. Ongoing funding uncertainty and the Government’s impending performance measures will be deployed in our already harsh regulatory and industrial environment to curtail scholarship and teaching that doesn’t meet the conservative benchmark of economic contribution.
It is our collective responsibility to fight back against every bit of funding taken away from higher education and to build a movement for meaningful funding increases that bring with them secure and permanent ongoing employment for university staff.
Our second challenge is the blatant ideological interference that accompanies financial austerity. Former Minister Birmingham’s veto of 11 Australian Research Council grants in the humanities typified the Liberals’ willingness to violate academic independence to please conservative ideologues who are unable to grasp the importance of all research in our universities.
Now we see the Government chest-beating over a confected free speech crisis on campuses for the benefit of a select few Murdoch columnists, instead of taking seriously the need to safeguard academic freedom.
When I joined the Senate just under a year ago, the first Bill I introduced was to remove the Education Minister’s power of veto over research grants and I remain absolutely committed to keep your work free from government interference.
Aside from Government interference, the saga of the Ramsay Centre has crystallised the incursion of private money and interests on academic independence. The Centre, headed by John Howard and his conservative mates, wants nothing more than to churn out students with an uncritical view of Western Civilisation, and they’re willing to shower our public universities with huge amounts of money to make that happen.
The NTEU’s work to oppose Ramsay-funded degrees should be applauded. I stand with you in opposition to the Centre having any influence on campuses, and condemn any university’s that accepts their money or bypass normal academic review processes to do so.
Security of work & casualisation
Finally, we see the impact university corporatisation has on industrial conditions. The imperatives of efficiency and productivity have resulted in tens of thousands of insecure and casualised workers struggling to put food on the table and pay their rent. There are workers in our universities left unable to plan for their futures with any certainty at all.
Too few people outside meetings like this realise that one of the worst industries for insecure work is now higher education. This ought to be a national shame.
Universities in Australia now employ far more people in casual jobs than they do in permanent ones. Data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows a majority of our universities have rates of casualisation exceeding 40 per cent. 71 per cent of the staff at University of Wollongong in NSW are casual, with RMIT following closely behind at 63 per cent. And these numbers do not include staff working on precarious fixed term contracts.
In my time at UNSW, I never saw the levels of anxiety, stress and constant worry in academic environments that I see now where a majority of the staff are being forced to work without paid leave, without sick leave and with no certainty of an ongoing job.
Women’s position in Universities
For me, this precarity of work is very much a feminist issue. The reciprocal relationship between insecurity of work in a sector and the feminisation of that workforce has touched all of our lives.
Women are massively overrepresented in casual employment in academia, with 58 per cent of all casual staff being women. Research has shown time and again not just the high concentration of women trapped in temporary work but also the long length of time they remain trapped in insecure work compared to our male colleagues, who are transitioned to secure jobs more often and more quickly than women.
But the gendered aspect of how academia treats women isn’t just limited to casualization either. While we know that universities now comprise of 57 per cent of all university staff are women, this percentage drops dramatically with just 34 per cent women working above the level of Senior Lecturer. The sexist attitudes that undermine working conditions for women in universities and throughout society are disturbingly resistant to change.
These daily injustices and fights for fairness in the workplace are inseparable from the larger challenge dismantling patriarchy poses for women. From poverty, rising homelessness among older women and the crisis of sexual and domestic violence to shocking rates of incarceration of our Indigenous sisters and the persistent gender pay gap, each individual injustice is a challenge for our whole feminist movement.
I always say the personal is political, and this is especially true for women. We are still fighting for fundamental rights from reproductive autonomy to a fair wage. To win these fights we must resist and agitate against the system, patriarchy and male control wherever it may be. I think this is particularly true in universities because of their historical role as organising centres in the fight for our rights.
If our campus- and university-based activism is not feminist, then it simply isn’t, in my view, good enough.
The demands of our political situation
The reality is that we are now faced with another three years of a Liberal Government, with a more hostile Senate that offers little hope for advancing a progressive agenda.
As a proud feminist, unionist and a Green, I know we can’t rely on parliament to see the radical change we need. It is only in the community and in our workplaces that we can organise and activate for that change. This makes the work of activists like you more important now than ever. We need to turn the tables and change the conversation entirely. That is the big challenge in our hands, and it goes beyond fighting this Government for every dollar they they’ve cut from university funding.
We have to fight the neoliberal conception of the university itself. The best antidote to the marketization of universities is to recognise learning and scholarship as intrinsic values in and of themselves, not just as means to an end.
Education is a fundamental human right and a public good, and that’s why we must continue our work for a completely state-funded higher education system where university and TAFE are fully-funded, fee-free for all and workers’ rights are protected. Just as primary and secondary schooling are available to all, so must be tertiary education and training.
Why should a society as rich as ours find it feasible to provide universal high-quality education at primary and secondary levels, but continue to regard tertiary education as an optional and unequal add-on – available only to those who can afford it? It should be a fundamental principle of a democratic society that learning and knowledge should be as widely shared and available as possible, not confined to privileged elites.
Call to radical action
Realising this principle requires a reimagination of our universities.
The idea that universities should only serve as factories, churning out workers for so-called economic growth is a far cry from the role universities need to have in society. Universities should be communities of learning, concerned with seeking the truth, concerned with advancing societal development and equality, and concerned with producing new knowledge, scholarship and ways of thinking.
Raewyn Connell’s book “The Good University” which I had the honour of launching earlier this year imagines possible futures for tertiary education.
She outlines a vision of institutions that operate democratically and serve democratic purposes, that are engaged in the social needs of their world, that are creative and truth-seeking in the generation and safeguarding of knowledge, and that are sustainable for centuries to come.
I think that’s a vision worth fighting for and few people are better placed to fight for what universities can and should be than unionists like us.
We’ve got our work cut out for us.
Nelson Mandela once said, “it always seems impossible until it is done” – so let’s roll up our sleeves and get it done.