The Liberals' “job-ready” education bill has passed the Senate. It represents one of the biggest attacks on access to higher education in decades. University fees will more than double for law, commerce and humanities courses. Struggling students who fail half of their units will lose their access to the HECS system and pay even higher fees.

This brutal attack from the government is only the latest assault on higher education. Students and staff are facing attacks from the government and the universities themselves as the industry goes into crisis and is increasingly dominated by the market. But even with the pandemic badly affecting campus life, students and staff are resisting. Appealing to the conscience of university management or crossbench senators won’t work. These latest attacks need to be met with a wave of protests.

The new bill’s punitive approach to university education is only the beginning. The bill also pushes Australian universities further along the process of privatised funding. Government contribution to university funding was already in steep decline: from more than 85 per cent of funding in 1990, the government now supplies only 30 per cent. This bill cuts government funding by 11 per cent per Commonwealth-supported place.

In the past few decades, universities have made up for these cuts by ripping off international students, who pay up-front fees at three times the price paid by domestic students. International student fees accounted for 23.5% of university revenue in 2017. The COVID-19 crisis has exposed this free-market funding mode: the decline of international student enrolment has created an estimated $4.6 billion gap in revenue.

The government could respond by abandoning its free-market approach and properly funding the sector. Instead, it’s doubling down on the private model. Even the limited funding the government is handing over to universities comes with strings attached. The government is spending money to universities to work more closely with private education companies, or face their competition, in the roll-out of “micro-credential” short courses, for which the government is funding 20,000 places. The $1.2 billion in government funding towards university research announced as part of the 2020 budget is tied up in grants and schemes structured to reward “greater engagement with industry” and improving “commercialisation of applied research”.

The universities’ vice chancellors have been thoroughly complicit in this process. Universities Australia, the peak industry group for universities, supported the bill. The dominance of corporations at universities cannot be missed by any student or researcher: corporate logos are all over buildings and lecture slides. Universities promote their degrees as “industry-ready”; major corporations co-write curriculum content. University boards are stacked out with corporate heads. At my own university, the University of Western Australia, this comes with some bitter ironies. A new building sponsored by Woodside and BHP is used to promote the sustainable design of UWA. Rio Tinto sponsors significant sections of the archaeology department, to help whitewash its practice of destroying Indigenous land, including the 46,000 year old sacred site at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara.

Vice chancellors have run the universities themselves like profit-seeking private corporations, with significant “restructures” hitting staff and courses, using the justification of the COVID crisis. An estimated one in ten full time equivalent of staff in the sector are going to lose their jobs. Given the notoriously high rates of casualisation in the university sector, to the numbers of individual jobs lost will be far higher than one in ten.

Campus by campus, the university managements are announcing hundreds of job cuts: 818 at Melbourne, 945 at Monash, 941 at RMIT, 500 at UNSW. But these numbers still represent just a fraction of the overall job cuts: thousands of casual and contract staff, which make up just under 70% of university staff in Victoria, are no longer receiving work. Sydney University online has cut $93 million from its casual staffing budget since March.

These massive cuts are taking place alongside course restructures and cuts to units. As early as March, the University of Tasmania announced it was cutting 394 courses. At Macquarie university in Sydney 48 courses and 203 units are being cut. Monash university is slashing 103 subjects.

Restructures were already part of a new normal of Australian universities. Hundreds of staff sackings, including at the rate of almost 10% of the workforce, took place pre-COVID. Even the campuses least affected by COVID are pushing cuts. UWA claims it has a long-term budget deficit unrelated to COVID. The University of Southern Queensland has decided that now is a good time to spend money on investments. Curtin wants to ensure a budget surplus. When it comes to cutting courses and sacking staff, no university management will want to let a good crisis go to waste.

Students and staff are resisting on multiple fronts. Students have been protesting the federal fee hikes and funding cuts, and demanding the sector be fully government funded. The passing of the bill has only served to galvanise opposition, with a national day of action going ahead for October 14. Campus demonstrations have repeatedly targeted university managements to oppose staff and course cuts.

Students at the University of Sydney have also had to contend with the police. Cops have been sent university security camera footage of protests and invited onto campus by campus security, where they have shut down rallies, used horses to pursue protesters around campus, and hit student activists with $1,000 fines.

University workers are facing government underfunding, university administrations and in some cases, their own union. University managements have taken different approaches to the crisis: some have collaborated with NTEU’s officials to push through pay cuts of up to 10%, with the union leaderships’ support at nine universities: Monash, Adelaide, La Trobe, ANU, UWA, Queensland University of Technology, Wollongong, Western Sydney, and Tasmania. Others have attempted to push through contract variations without union support, or just skipped directly to mass sackings.

In all circumstances, a rank and file union strategy is necessary to defend staff jobs, wages and conditions. NTEU Fightback has been a crucial example of fighting rank and file leadership necessary to counter the national union strategy of concession and the acceptance of job cuts.

At RMIT, the NTEU Fightback group has pushed for large-scale systematic organising required to lay the basis for a strike campaign. This has included a raft of area meetings, developing a  union stronghold based around the library, and putting together multiple online rallies of over 300 attendees.

At the University of Sydney, hundreds of staff attended workplace meetings over the last two weeks. 340 staff then voted to support a firm statement against job cuts, including the current proposal for round of voluntary redundancies, which leave the remaining staff overworked.

There will be no easy wins in this fight. Union strongholds with recent memories of successful strikes, like the University of Sydney, will have to engage the most number of workers and use all the limited enterprise agreement rights at their disposal to create a public opposition to university management and lay the basis for an industrial campaign involving strike action. Other campus staff will have to fight for any degree of opposition, hindered by union leaderships whose favoured strategy is concession–which only builds a culture of resigned acceptance of cuts.

The rampant casualisation of the sector aims to undermine resistance, with staff fearing for their jobs and not wanting to undermine their chances of getting work for the following semester. The experience of recent universities restructures is often humiliating and degrading, with staff of decades being forced to reapply for their old job at a lower pay rate, or told that they have to compete with close co-workers for half the numbers of staff positions.

Begging for concessions from vice chancellors who’ve overseen these restructures, or hoping that they’ll contest the corporatisation of higher education is a mistaken strategy that only adds to the submission of staff. A militant rank and file union strategy is necessary to resist these historic campus restructures. Just as bosses refuse to let a crisis go to waste, neither should our side. The COVID period has seen rank and file networks form on campuses without any previous structures, a necessary starting point for rebuilding a militant union strategy. For stronger campuses, the urgency of organising against campus cuts is crucial in organising the workplace for a substantial strike campaign.

But to fight the government and vice chancellors, universities across Australia will need militant student protest campaign. Mass student protest has pushed back Liberal governments in the past, preventing fee deregulation in 2014.

Some student politicians and NTEU email campaigns have focused on lobbying crossbenchers. That has proven to be a futile strategy: senators from the Centre Alliance are more interested in making deals with the government than with some pleading students. We need a militant student and staff fightback, with demonstrations and disruptive actions, to resist the restructures, privatisations and cuts to higher education.


Join the National day of Action on October 14:

National event:

Sydney: 14 October, University of Sydney Quad Lawns "teach in"

Melbourne: 14 October organising meeting for an in person protest which will take place on the 20th

Melbourne: 20 October, undisclosed locations

Canberra: 14 October, 1pm, Kambri at ANU

Adelaide: 14 October, 1pm, Parliament Steps

Perth:14 October, 12pm Reid Lawn, UWA