Why Hilmer hates public education

Osman Faruqi, president of the UNSW Student Representative Council, addresses a rally in solidarity with the NTEU, July 20. Phot

A prolonged industrial dispute is continuing at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) as a result of the ongoing refusal of vice-chancellor Fred Hilmer to bargain in good faith with the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) over staff concerns about pay and conditions — especially job security.

Hilmer’s intransigence should come as no surprise.

When Hilmer announced his decision to take up a tidy $750,000 annual salary package as vice-chancellor of University of New South Wales back in 2005, he said partial deregulation of education was like being “half pregnant”.

“You're better off either deregulating properly or you regulate properly”, he said at the time. “I would be worried if we were in a half-pregnant zone.”

Hilmer was the architect of the Paul Keating government’s national competition policy in the 1990s. He now wants to convert UNSW into a driving force for the further corporatisation of public university education.

As chairperson of Keating’s National Competition Policy Review in 1992-93, he led the charge to inject profit-driven imperatives into the public sector. The aim was to restructure public services in the image of private corporations so that eventually they could be privatised as “profitable” companies.

He forced through the privatisation of state energy authorities and deepened the drive towards the corporatisation of local government services. For his services, he was named chairperson of Pacific Power in 1995.

His corporate credentials have won him senior business positions as deputy chairman of Foster’s Group Limited, director of Coca-Cola Amatil, TNT and Macquarie Bank. He also sits on the board of the Westfields Group.

Hilmer dismisses claims he is anti-union as “untrue”, but his track record speaks for itself.

As CEO of media group John Fairfax Holdings between 1998-2005, Hilmer systematically set out to smash the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

He now wants to turn UNSW from a university for research, study and academic excellence into his latest business venture — most likely to be sold-off later. He has made it clear he does not intend to let the concerns of staff and students get in his way.

That is why Hilmer is refusing to budge in relation to NTEU demands for regulation of fixed-term contracts (as opposed to permanent positions) for UNSW employees.

Hilmer has cited the problems of “volatility in the global market” as a reason the university needs the “flexibility” to dispose of staff at will.

For Hilmer, corporate investment must come before decent education and fair work practices.

Yet the UNSW branch of the NTEU and UNSW students have made it clear they do not want a further expansion of fixed-term contracts. The staff and students are merely demanding conditions similar to those agreed to at almost all other universities across Australia.

The rise in fixed-term contracts has led to higher stress levels for staff as they face the threat of not having their contract renewed. This adversely affects the quality of education students receive.

Given his current stance and his background, it is clear Hilmer is ideologically committed to further corporatise UNSW and set a new benchmark that other university administrations can use to justify similar attacks on working conditions.

That is why the wider community should see the current dispute at UNSW as part of our broader battle for quality education — and seek to repel this corporate push.

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