Raewyn Connell: Australian Universities — Running with Neoliberalism

Raewyn Connell: Australian Universities — Running with Neoliberalism
Raewyn Connell, National Tertiary Education Union  

Australia is a small rich country in the global periphery, with a society stemming from the encounter between an ancient Aboriginal civilization and the British form of settler colonialism. Dependent development turned towards import replacement industrialization in the 20th century.  In the last 30 years, the industrial economy has been dismantled under neoliberalism, and the country is now once more dependent for prosperity on heavy exports of raw materials, especially coal and iron ore.

In the period of import replacement industrialization, the Australian state build a good-quality public university system as part of its development strategy.  Few working-class youth, however, attended, even when fees were abolished in the early 1970s.  Under a neo-liberal Labor Party government in the late 1980s this system was deregulated, expanded, and quasi-privatized by the reintroduction of fees, which have since escalated massively.  The system has since become increasingly stratified, with a group of the older universities (calling themselves, believe it or not, the G08), trying to distinguish themselves from the rest and entrench a privileged funding position centered on research.

Stagnation in public funding has made the system increasingly dependent on student fees, and especially on fees from overseas students.  Overseas students are now around 20% of all enrolments, I believe.  As they pay much higher fees than local students, they are a key to university finances.  Some universities have gone gangbusters for overseas students, expanding the fields in demand in this market, such as business and engineering, and discarding others.

The University of Sydney was founded in the colonial era, as a kind of finishing-school for the sons of the British colonial elite.  It is now one of the largest in the country, a multiversity (to use Clark Kerr’s old term) which claims to teach the widest range of fields in the system.  Though basically a public institution, it is richer than other Australian universities because of its links with the local ruling class, and the endowments some of them have provided.  (Not on the scale of US elite private universities, however.)  The social profile of the University of Sydney’s students is noticeably more privileged than that of, say, the University of Western Sydney.  The University of Sydney schools of law and medicine are closely linked to the established wealth and power of the city.  The University is, naturally, one of the G08.

Yet last year the staff voted to strike, and were almost on the picket line when the university management came to the table.  (In Australia the term “staff” includes academic and non-academic staff; we are in the same union.)

Why did the University staff vote to strike?  There are always multiple reasons behind industrial action.  This one was triggered by frustration at the university management’s dragging its feet for the best part of a year about a new Enterprise Agreement (i.e. legally enforcible wage bargain, under Australia’s now decentralized industrial relations system).

But behind this were broader concerns:

  • a pervasive sense of increasing pressure of work, often from incremental expansion in the range of tasks staff are expected to do, without increase in the support provided;
  • growing surveillance, as neoliberal management systems bite deeper and demand more in the way of documented “performance”, encouraged by neoliberal governments with their ideology of “accountability”;
  • growing distance between management and staff, a feature of all Australian universities, symbolized at University of Sydney by the creation of a “Senior Executive Group” as a new decision-making body, bypassing all elective mechanisms;
  • overcrowded and deteriorating buildings, a problem now acknowledged by university management.

In the deep background, I think, are problems across the whole Australian university system, including:

  • growing distrust of the purposes of managers and governments, pushing neoliberal agendas in various forms;
  • high levels of insecurity and uncertainty among junior academic staff, combined with a pending labor supply crisis in the sector;
  • uncertainty about the rationale of a university system in the global periphery, as higher education becomes more commodified and is treated as an export industry;
  • spreading alienation among a workforce that finds few signs other than rhetoric of common purposes in academic labor as it is now organized.

Yet the University of Sydney is one of the most privileged in the world, and the Australian system is relatively well resourced.  What’s it going to be like elsewhere?  The rest of the blog tells.

Universities in Crisis, 07/04/10