The neoliberal university threatens precarious workers, education

Photo: University of Sydney Casuals Network

Neoliberal ideology has reduced tertiary education to a commodity: students have become “customers” and academics and lecturers are now “service providers”.

Since the 1980s, managements have restructured universities around whether they are “viable” for international and national markets. Marketisation now also determines which disciplines are “profitable” and, as a consequence, which subjects and types of research are worthy of funding.

This approach has favoured business, law, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM subjects) over politics, literature, gender studies, philosophy and visual arts — the latter being singled out for closure and staff cuts.

The other side of this coin is that, today, most university workers live a precarious existence. Casual and fixed-term, precarious, staff make up at least 74% of the university work force. This is because managements can pay casual staff far less than permanents.

Most early-career academics, including those who have completed a PhD, are not only broke due to debts accrued from post-graduate study, they can also face a lifetime of debt because permanent full-time work is no longer available.

In addition, research assistance work is hard to come by and post-doctoral fellowships here and overseas are not only extremely rare and competitive, but also favour STEM subjects.

After completing our PhDs, myself and many of my peers consider ourselves lucky to have secured even a small amount of casual lecturing or tutoring.

However, this is not enough to make ends meet, let alone build one’s career. Many casual academics have to support themselves with other part-time jobs. Some have been casual for more than a decade, their applications for permanency consistently denied.

Excessive casualisation is one way the neoliberal university can cut costs. Many casual academics work hours equivalent to full-time permanent roles, yet are classified “casual” and paid as such.

This amounts to systemic wage theft.

Not all hours worked are paid. For example, Sydney University staff are paid a fixed hourly rate to prepare and deliver a lecture: the payment covers the two-hour lecture, but not the preparation time.

Essential tasks, such as marking and administration work, are paid on a piece-rate basis. Unsurprisingly, these are very low and purposely disregard the amount of time, skill and effort needed to mark a student’s work properly or to complete the general tasks needed to maintain a unit, course or tutorial.

Workers find themselves in a vicious cycle as casualisation leads to financial insecurity which leads to those same workers becoming fearful of speaking out.

However, some have mobilised, particularly since university managements have used COVID-19 to further decimate the sector with staff cuts, falsely claiming a loss of student revenue.

The University of Sydney, for example, logged an operating surplus of $106.6 million last year.

National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU)-affiliated groups, such as Casual Unemployed Precarious University Workers (CUPUW), the University of Sydney Casuals Network, La Trobe Casuals Network and University of Melbourne Casuals Network, have started organising to defend jobs and working conditions.

Casual staff at 10 leading universities, including the University of Sydney, University of Queensland, University of Melbourne and La Trobe have been, or are currently, involved in serious wage theft disputes.

Melbourne University was forced to pay back billions in stolen wages last year after casual academic staff led a hard-fought campaign.

The University of Sydney Casuals Network, with the support of the NTEU (Sydney University branch), conducted an audit of casual staff last year that found they had been consistently underpaid.

The same casuals’ network made two submissions to the Senate inquiry into economic renumeration, demanding that: all staff be paid for all hours worked; casuals are back paid; piece rates are abolished; and for long-term casuals to be made permanent.

Dr Yaegan Doran, a casual and fixed-term academic at University of Sydney, told Green Left that wage theft not only overworks staff, the quality of education is also diminished. Staff are sick of being “thrown under the bus” by management, he said.

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