COVID-19: Tertiary jobs under threat


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Many thousands of university workers are feeling the first shockwaves of the COVID-19 crisis, with many already unemployed or with their jobs under threat. Education jobs should be considered essential in a modern society, and so protected and funded appropriately.

Higher education has been highly dependent on international students for over a decade. Revenue in the sector was severely battered as students were blocked from entering Australia or raced home when international lockdowns commenced earlier this year.

Many of those gone are unlikely to return in the context of such ongoing uncertainty and crisis. On top of that, China’s regime has warned its students against coming to Australia. As ‘The Conversation’ points out in a recent article, a good case scenario would see a return to pre-COVID international student enrolments by 2024.

For some universities fees from international students represents over a third of their entire revenue! $8.8 billion dollars was raised by universities in Australia from full fee-paying international students at the end of 2018.

It is expected that universities will lose $5 billion this year alone. With figures like these it is not hard to see the impact that this will have. Unfortunately however it will be the lecturers, tutors, administrative and student services staff that will bear the brunt of this.

In a sector already highly casualised and with many on temporary contracts, tens of thousands could lose their jobs in the next period. Women workers will be particularly hard hit. Shamefully many workers facing this threat have also found themselves under attack from their own trade union leaders.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) announced in May that they had brokered a deal with vice-chancellors to ‘save’ jobs, unbeknownst to most rank and file members.

The deal known as the National Jobs Protection Framework would have seen a ‘temporary’ pay reduction of between 5-15% in return for saving 12,000 jobs. NTEU officials and Vice Chancellors claimed this would not have a significant impact on workers livelihoods and that it was the only way to save jobs.

While this might be true for a Vice Chancellor on their average $900,000 a year salary, administrators are paid just over $66, 000 a year. This means that the cuts would reduce their fortnightly wage by $368! Temporary or not this would not be sustainable nor should it be accepted.

The proposed deal was widely rejected by union members and even some university administrations. The NTEU Fightback campaign was started by a disgusted member. The proposal was then defeated amidst a determined revolt of rank-and-file NTEU members.

Those campaigning against the deal rightly pointed out that the attacks will not stop here. Thousands have already lost work and many more jobs are under threat. The NTEU Fightback launched a program for resisting job cuts. They correctly emphasise the importance of building a strong union which will be able to organise against the attacks.

They point out the power in a union and that past struggles, as well as this one, that have been won through organisation. NTEU Fightback members rightly advocate the resistance of any job losses and that only industry wide action against this will win.

Any successful campaign will also need to raise demands to take the struggle forward. Such demands must include presenting an alternative to the status quo of tertiary education funding.

For decades successive governments have stripped university education. No university should have to rely on full fee-paying students for its revenue. Instead full public funding should be provided.

There is no need to double humanities course costs and raise others, as the government recently announced.

As The Socialist has pointed out before, education in Australia could immediately be fully funded from childcare to university if this money was taken from the big end of town. For example, hundreds of companies operating in the country make fat profits but are exempt from paying tax. The necessary wealth exists.

Universities today, many of which are still officially public institutions, operate corporate business models. These models need to be scrapped. Instead socialists say education should be treated as a human right and provided as an essential public service, with high quality jobs guaranteed for university staff.

History shows us that when we fight we can win these demands. But to guarantee them into the future we need to do away with the profit-first capitalist system and replace it with democratic socialism.

By a public sector worker

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