Make Education Free Again

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Words || Berna Erkan

Berna Erkan, member of the Macquarie Students Against the Cuts campaign, calls for action against the latest decision by Macquarie authorities to encourage staff to choose voluntary redundancies

The recent announcement by Macquarie’s Vice-Chancellor Bruce Dowton and the university management means that Macquarie intends to initiate major staff cuts and course cuts. Beginning with a process of ‘voluntary redundancies’, staff have been told that if ‘insufficient staff’ accept unemployment now,  the university intends to initiate ‘major workplace change processes’ throughout the next 6 to 12 months. In other words, no matter the sacrifices of individuals who ‘voluntarily’ choose to lose their livelihoods, staff in general should anticipate mass redundancies at Macquarie University. 

If these cuts resemble anything like what is happening elsewhere in the higher education sector, students and staff can expect something of a neoliberal bloodbath. Across the sector, thousands of staff have been forced into redundancy. The peak industry-body representing Australian universities projected in April, a loss of 21,000 jobs within the next six months as an initial first step to deal with the loss of university revenue. 

At the University of New South Wales, 493 full-time staff will be sacked, Monash University will make 277 of their staff redundant, and hundreds will also be made redundant at La Trobe University. This is to name just a few of the galling examples of Australian universities leading the way in mass austerity and job cuts as a response to effects of a world-wide health pandemic. It is a response to the current economic crisis unparalleled in any other sector of Australian capitalism.

This should be understood as an unprecedented attack on student education and a massive assault on staff working conditions at universities across Australia. Universities seem to prefer to prioritise the revenue streams and profits that form their bottom-line, rather than funding teaching and learning, and the livelihood of university staff. 

Macquarie University is a multibillion-dollar corporation, that has $3.5 billion dollars in assets as of 2018, and millions of dollars for executive salaries, including $1.01 million for VC Bruce Dowton, alongside hundreds of thousands of dollars in executive perks, according to an article in The Sydney Morning Herald. At the end of 2019, the University also chose to reward the former Executive and Associate Dean of the now defunct Faculty of Human Sciences with the Pro-Vice Chancellor position. This was after they advocated for the dissolution of the Faculty that would result in $5 million dollars in ‘savings’. 

Macquarie University as such, can and should be doing everything it can, to save staff and prioritise education, not implement redundancies and degrade the quality of learning received by students. As there is an ongoing crisis in the existing revenue streams of higher education in Australia, why on earth should staff and students be punished for the shortfall? 

Since the introduction of HECS and the end of free education in 1989, the federal government and Vice-Chancellors have worked hand in glove to reduce government funding for higher education into a pittance. Instead, the government and Vice-Chancellors’ have benefited from the transformation of Australian universities into an extremely profitable, corporate bonanza. The two key most lucrative avenues for this corporatisation being the deregulated fees procured from international students, and the further integration of business and higher education primarily through research output. 

Until recently, higher education was Australia’s third highest export, raking in $28 billion in 2017. Therefore, when Macquarie’s VC Dowton bemoans the costs of a budget shortfall, this is not a funding crisis in the costs of teaching and learning, but a crisis of the ongoing profitability of a corporate university.

The notion that Macquarie University is spending too much on teaching and learning is laughable. At Macquarie University, staff are overworked, widely casualised, and dealing with one of the highest staff to student ratios in the country because of consecutive rounds of staff and course cuts. Casual staff in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Macquarie are now in the process of being repaid $50,000 due to underpayment and wage theft by the University, according to an article in ABC News. This coincides with a huge assault on students in the form of major fee increases, that will see students in Arts, Business, Law and Economics degrees pay up to 93% more for their degree, coinciding with major reductions in commonwealth funding.

The recent changes implemented by university management, such as the disestablishment of the Faculty of Human Sciences in 2019 and further course cuts through MQ2020, have led many students to form the view that our VC is not interested in quality education or the working conditions of university staff. It appears that Macquarie is exploiting a major health crisis to push through further cuts to our education and staff.

There is a solution to this manufactured crisis of the corporate university – a fully funded and truly public higher education sector. But that requires mass student and staff mobilisation against the neoliberal university in opposition to every cut and every cash-grab. 

It has never been more imperative. 

To find out how to get involved in the campaign at Macquarie, like the Facebook page ‘Macquarie Students Against Uni Cuts’, and follow the national campaign ‘Student Fightback: Stop Fee Hikes, Stop Cuts’.

When contacted for comment about this article, the university provided the below response:

The university sector, including Macquarie University, is facing significant financial challenges in coming years due to the impacts of COVID-19. While we are taking action to address this through a combination of new revenue sources and savings in non-staff costs, regrettably there is still a significant shortfall that cannot be addressed through minor changes. Our goal is to minimise forced job losses and so we are proposing a Voluntary Redundancy Scheme as a first step to addressing these budget challenges. We have been consulting with staff and unions about the impacts of COVID-19 on the University’s financial position and the proposed VR scheme, and are currently considering their feedback.