Budget cuts to be deepened in Australian universities


Regardless of the outcome of the May 21 federal election, Australia’s 200,000 surviving university workers and 1.6 million students face even greater attacks on jobs and working conditions as a result of the federal budget of This year.

The March 29 budget cuts will intensify what has already happened in the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which up to 90,000 jobs have been lost, including those of casual academics and other workers, class sizes exploded and hundreds of classes were cut.

In another show of bipartisanship, the opposition Labor Party helped the Liberal-National coalition government push the budget through parliament within 24 hours. It targets higher education for further drastic cuts, alongside public schools, in health and climate change spending, while increasing military funding for participation in US-led wars.

The main quadrangle of the University of Sydney (Wikimedia Commons)

The budget cut public funding per university student by 5.4% in real terms for 2022-23 and by 3.6% for the following two years. According to the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), this means that $3 billion was taken out of universities from 2017-18 to 2025-26. This appears to be an underestimate, as it is based on inflation figures prior to the global price spike since the start of the war in Ukraine.

Without even accounting for inflation, spending on the Commonwealth Grants Scheme itself, which funds undergraduate and some masters courses, will drop from $7.56 billion in 2021-22 to $7.22 billion in 2023-24.

The Morrison government’s “Job Ready Graduates” program shifts more of the cost of tuition to students, especially those in the humanities, while focusing higher education more closely on meeting employer demands. Estimated student share of course costs rises from 42% to 48%, burdening students with massive debt.

Spending on university research is projected to increase slightly from $2.32 billion in 2021-22 to $2.92 billion in 2025-26, but this is a reduction in real terms due to the rise in inflation. Much of the dollar increase is due to the government’s business-friendly “research commercialization” program announced late last year to better link universities to the research needs of the corporate elite.

The cuts will intensify the pro-business gutting and restructuring of higher education that has been pursued by Coalition and Labor governments, particularly since the last Labor government from 2007-2013, kept in power by the Greens, imposed an “educational revolution”. ”

Labour’s ‘demand-driven’ funding system forced universities to compete for enrollment while cutting their funding by $3 billion in 2012-13, making them increasingly dependent on international students paid at full price.

This laid the groundwork for the current coalition government and university leaderships to exploit the COVID pandemic to accelerate this offensive, with the loss of international revenue being used as a pretext to cut a swathe of jobs and tuition.

University data for 2020, released last month by Acting Education Minister Stuart Robert, showed ‘productivity’ rose in the sector by 4.5% that year, a jump from 1.2% in 2019.

According to Australian, this productivity calculation includes cost reduction measures such as “students per $1 million” and “students per scholar”. In other words, “productivity” means reducing spending and education per student.

The only beneficiaries of the restructuring, other than big business, have been well-paid university executives. They have been rewarded, including performance bonuses, for inflicting pain on staff and students.

For example, University of Queensland (UQ) Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Terry received $1.2 million last year. This is around 30 times Australia’s official minimum wage of $40,000.

UQ’s 2021 annual report, tabled in Queensland’s parliament, also reveals that 10 other leaders were paid between $555,000 and $825,000 each. This puts them firmly in the top 5% of the income scale.

Yet all of this is only possible because the outrage of university workers and students has been systematically suppressed by the NTEU and other unions, as well as student unions, mostly aligned with the Labor Party.

When COVID-19 hit in 2020, the NTEU rushed into behind-the-scenes discussions with these university leaderships, proposing pay cuts of up to 15% and up to 18,000 job cuts, including through forced layoffs.

After this unprecedented union-management agreement caused immense anger among university workers, the employers pulled out. Nevertheless, the NTEU forged ahead with similar programs to impose sacrifices on staff at individual universities in order to help principals achieve the cost reductions they demanded.

The union has opposed all calls by supporters of the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) and the Committee for Public Instruction (CFPE) for a unified fight against the government. At the same time, the NTEU’s protests and appeals to members of the parliamentary elite for budget relief have fallen on deaf ears.

After this debacle, the NTEU began to try to bring workers back into its ranks claiming that company bargaining with individual managements provided the only way to defend even the remaining conditions.

The NTEU has since dragged out that process, well after previous three-year enterprise agreements expired, effectively imposing a wage freeze and further isolating staff and students, campus by campus.

Meanwhile, the union promoted the illusion that a Labor government would end the onslaught. In a post-budget press release, NTEU National Chairperson Alison Barnes wrote: “The spotlight is now on a future government to deliver the urgent reforms and funding the higher education sector has needed to restore jobs and recover from the pandemic.

This rhetoric not only runs counter to the destructive role of the last Labor government, but it conceals the even more reactionary plans of Labor today. Labor leader Anthony Albanese said a Labor government would fund “up to” 20,000 more university places in 2022 and 2023.

This is a far cry from the Labor Party’s 2019 election promise, itself insufficient, to increase funding for universities by $10 billion over 10 years. the Australian calculated that the additional seats would cost less than $500 million.

Moreover, Labour’s plan echoes the Coalition’s Job Ready regime. The new student places would focus on professional areas such as digital security and cybersecurity, manufacturing, early childhood, elderly care and disability. The first two are priorities for the capitalist elite as they plan for military conflict and seek to maximize the available manpower to exploit.

Last August, Labor Party Education Minister Tanya Plibersek addressed the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Conference, a gathering of business elite, presenting a Labor government as the best way to scale up corporate restructuring in higher education.

Plibersek has proposed a bipartisan “deal” between the two ruling parties, unions, business, university management, students and parents to “hold university reform” in the interest of “national prosperity”.

The NTEU shares the Labor Party’s pro-business commitment to ‘university reform’. In his budget press release, Barnes said the coalition government was “embarrassing” because it refused to acknowledge that “higher education is Australia’s fourth largest export industry, contributing $40 billion dollars to Australia’s total exports”.

It means making higher education more subordinate to the profit interests of the Australian capitalist class. It makes clear that the continued destruction of jobs, conditions and courses can only be fought on the basis of an entirely opposite political perspective that rejects the dictates of financial markets and employers. In other words, a socialist program in which educators have secure jobs with decent wages and free first-class education is a right for all.

Lessons should be learned from these experiences. The NTEU and other unions do not represent workers’ interests. They operate as pro-labour, pro-employer industrial police forces.

SEP and CFPE members urge staff and students to form grassroots independent committees and join the struggles of educators and students internationally against the global COVID-19 catastrophe and the onslaught of companies about jobs and conditions. To discuss this, contact the CFPE.

Email: [email protected]
Facebook: facebook.com/commforpubliceducation
Twitter: @CFPE_Australia

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