- Interview by
- Jeff Sparrow
Australian universities are in the midst of a deep crisis. Between 2020 and 2021, university managers slashed an estimated twenty-seven thousand jobs. Indeed, the real figure is difficult to determine, since official statistics don’t count casual academics and university staff on fixed contracts. In part, this is to conceal the vast extent of insecure, precarious work throughout the sector. According to some estimates, at a number of universities, precariously employed academics make up more than 70 percent of all teaching staff.
Casuals are not the only workers suffering in a sector beset by decades of neoliberal reforms and austerity. This was only compounded by the pandemic, as the federal government excluded universities from extensive crisis support funding given to other sectors. As a result, those who didn’t lose their jobs over the last two years still face the threat of new rounds of redundancies while they struggle to keep up with the increased workloads that have resulted from job losses. Meanwhile student debt and class sizes are growing, and thanks to insufficient COVID-19 control measures, safety continues to be an issue for both staff and students.
There is, however, an obvious solution to these problems: a strong industrial campaign led by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). Indeed, some union activists in the sector have been pushing for this for years, arguing for new organizing models that can oppose — and perhaps even reverse — decades of deterioration.
Anastasia Kanjere is a casual academic worker and union activist, and has been at the forefront of organizing in the tertiary sector in recent years. She’s standing in upcoming National Tertiary Education Union elections, as a candidate for general secretary, as part of the “A New NTEU” ticket. Anastasia spoke to Jeff Sparrow about the challenges and opportunities facing university workers.
What experiences led you to become a union activist?
Over the past ten or so years as a casual academic, I’ve worked at about four or five universities across the country. I’ve taught in legal studies, media studies, sociology, politics, and even Spanish. My experience as a casual academic, has been, frankly, pretty grim. You feel isolated and exploited, with very little sense of being appreciated or cared for by the institution you are working for. And casual academics are grossly underpaid for grading and are not paid at all to take care of students.
I became active in my branch of the National Tertiary Education Union when I was involved in setting up a network of casual academics. It was just before COVID hit — we had one face-to-face event, one in-person organizing meeting in human form. And then, things went really crazy.
Even before the pandemic, it was commonly said that higher education in Australia was in crisis. How would you describe that crisis and how did it manifest for the people who worked at the institutions?
If you imagine a flourishing, thriving university, well, that hasn’t existed for several decades. Students once had a sense of ownership over the university, but now that is really damaged. And because of the growth of casual employment, casual academics like me now make up the bulk of workers in the university sector. We struggle to feel any relationship with the institutions we’re teaching in. That necessarily translates into a worse education for students. If you’re a student, it’s miserable to talk to someone whose contract finishes at the end of the semester. They might be writing, lecturing, or doing administration for a subject on their own, with almost zero institutional support and for a fraction of what a permanent staff member would be entitled to.
Wages and conditions for staff have declined, while simultaneously, student fees have increased dramatically.
Absolutely. International students, in particular, really struggle. Often, on top of their study, they have to deal with visas, travel restrictions, and work restrictions. International students often need more support to make sure that they’re connected with good housing and to ensure they have the academic skills and support that they need. And, again, casual staff are increasingly unable to offer any of that support. And if they do, they aren’t paid for it.
It’s not just that casual university workers are doing unpaid work — they’re often working seventy hour weeks just to make ends meet. At the same time, fixed-term and ongoing university workers are being squeezed harder and harder as workloads rise.
Precarity has become normalized throughout the sector. Can you tell us something about what that looks like? What kind of conditions do casual workers in higher education normally encounter?
If you walk into a university classroom, it is extremely likely that the person at the front of the classroom teaching the class won’t have an office. It is close to guaranteed that they won’t have an individual office. It’s not just that they are unlikely to have access to a desk or a computer — they probably won’t have somewhere to put their bag down on campus. If it’s the start of semester, there’s also a good chance that they won’t have a contract yet. It’s very common for university workers to start the semester before they’ve even been officially contracted.
Because casual contracts expire at the end of the teaching period, casual academics are likely to only have intermittent institutional access to an email account or a library card. Casual academics are not paid to attend lectures. When it comes to grading, they’re underpaid. When they need to have assignments double-graded or follow up potential cases of plagiarism, they aren’t paid at all. Casual academics aren’t paid to spend time with their students outside of class.
And casuals have no guarantee of getting more work in the future. Very frequently, casuals are forced to max out their credit card over the summer break. The time between teaching periods means that for months, casuals have no income. These are some of the conditions faced by a majority of teaching staff, as well as other staff members, including casual professional and administrative staff.
How did this precarity become normalized? What effect has it had on the ability of those workers to organize and fight back?
Precarity became the norm slowly and surely. It initially involved a kind of tacit consent. It was accepted that during the course of a PhD, postgraduates would take on some precarious work, almost as a kind of a traineeship. The idea was that that this would be very short-lived, and that after graduating, a PhD candidate would quickly find permanent work.
The NTEU made a big mistake when it failed to immediately embrace and organize those workers on precarious contracts. For a long time, the union saw those workers as external to the workforce, and did not recruit them into the movement. This gave university bosses free rein to expand casual work, which led to the further erosion of conditions for all university workers as precarious work became a norm.
I don’t want to deny that it is harder to organize precarious workers. They’re harder to contact because they’re not on campus as much. Because they don’t have offices, you can’t just knock on their door to talk about union organizing. Casual workers are also more vulnerable, which means that they can be less willing to take risks. Strike action can be more complicated with precarious workers.
Despite this, it’s not only possible to organize precarious workers — in fact, it’s indispensable. By the time that the NTEU started to take precarious workers even somewhat seriously it was far too late. Precarity had spread so widely, that we had got to a point of crisis. Now, there’s a huge backlog of mistrust and uncertainty among casuals about unionism that needs to be overcome. And that’s where we are now.
Many of Australia’s biggest and wealthiest universities — University of Sydney, Melbourne, New South Wales, and others — have admitted that they owe millions of dollars to casual staff in unpaid wages. How did such wealthy prestigious organizations get away with wage theft for so long?
It’s important to note that the amount of wage theft that universities have admitted to is tiny in comparison to the actual amount they’ve underpaid casual workers. But how did this happen? Well, university bosses were focused on making profits, and they knew they could get away with underpaying workers. They were dealing with a group of workers who were scared, fractured, vulnerable, and precarious.
On the other side, it took far too long to start organizing around this issue, and punishing universities for underpaying workers. That work started at the University of Melbourne. Rank-and-file casual workers forced the university to admit to underpaying casuals. They demonstrated that we could win on this issue, and as a result, the union could no longer look the other way.
How did they build that campaign and what lessons can we draw from it?
They did it by doing good unionism. They massively increased the union membership among casuals by holding actions that built confidence among casuals, including in-person rallies and visibility campaigns. This helped to make unionism be seen as normal and appropriate for casual staff. They built worker power — and though they faced a lot of intimidation from management, they’d built enough solidarity that they were able to stare it down.
As you said, the sector was already in crisis before the pandemic. How did COVID-19 impact higher education?
The most important impact that the pandemic had was engendering terror among workers who were already afraid, who already felt precarious. And I don’t only mean casual staff. Yes, the financial impact of COVID-19 was substantial — but management exaggerated the impact, as all good neoliberals do. They took advantage of the shock and uncertainty to implement strategies they’d been planning for decades.
This was exacerbated by the federal government’s stated willingness to let the university sector fail. This added to the sense that university workers were on their own, that nobody was coming to save them. And then, to make matters worse, the union leadership bought into the sense of crisis. They joined with university managers to argue that it was doomsday, and that workers had to take massive hits for the sector to survive.
The result was the so-called Jobs Protection Framework (JPF). The JPF was a deal hammered out behind closed doors, between the NTEU and university managers. The union asked university workers to trade away pay and conditions in return for a supposed commitment to avoid redundancies. Because of a rank-and-file revolt, the JPF was only implemented at La Trobe University, Monash University, and the University of Western Australia.
Now, looking back, not only can we see that managers overestimated the extent of the crisis, we also know that they always made the deal in bad faith. Workers at universities that signed on to the JPF were no more secure than anywhere else. In fact, it was almost the opposite — wherever the union did a deal with managers, it reduced the fighting capacity of workers and their trust in their union.
The pandemic is by no means over. You’re a founding member of the Return-to-Campus Working group. What are you concerned about as remote work is scaled back?
I’m in week six of teaching, and I have a student who has been exposed this semester to COVID five times since returning to campus. Classes are being taught in rooms without windows that open and without any ventilation or air testing.
University managers have been incredibly negligent in conducting ventilation audits and in developing COVID-safe plans, which, by the way, is a legal requirement. University managers are so used to getting away with this kind of thing, and we don’t have the industrial muscle to hold them to account over these transgressions. We cannot rely on the idea that bosses will be careful and benevolent. We need a powerful union that can force universities to take measures that will keep workers and students safe.
Are you also concerned that alongside the health consequences of the return to work that we will see management use some of the emergency measures introduced during the pandemic to reduce conditions?
Yes, one hundred percent. We’re already seeing this. For example, we’re concerned that universities will try to use recorded lectures year after year, as yet another way to reduce staffing. It’s another example of management taking advantage of a difficult situation to extract concessions from workers.
University workers care about what they do. So, if university managers can manufacture a situation in which their subjects will only be delivered if they accept worse conditions, then it’s a way to force them to back down. If managers threaten that students won’t be able to pass, that libraries won’t open, or that subjects will be cut, then university workers will often make concessions in order to keep doing the work they know and love. University managers know this and take advantage of it.
Some might argue that given budget cuts to higher education and the loss of international students, due to the pandemic, university managers had no other choice but to make cuts. How would you respond?
Look at university budgets! Look at how much they spend on senior executive salaries, new buildings, and external consultants. When you actually sit down and look at university finances, it’s apparent that university managers have not been forced into these choices. Their strategy is to run universities like private businesses — and this is what we should be fighting against. Unfortunately, vice chancellors haven’t faced consequences for slashing staff budgets. And ultimately, that’s because we haven’t been organized enough to advocate for ourselves or for our students, industrially. So far the situation is working out for university bosses — and that’s what we need to change as unionists.
What difference will the federal election make for higher education? What should it mean for unionists?
Focusing on the elections is a real mistake. It makes me angry to see the NTEU dragged in behind the usual pro-Labor advocacy. Our experiences in the Return-to-Campus Working group is that, when it comes to workplace safety, the negligence of the Victorian Labor government with respect to safety has been appalling. It is wrong to think that we can put Labor governments in power, and expect they will stand up for workers. That hypothesis has been tested and failed many times. For unionists in the tertiary sector, I think the election is ultimately a distraction. It’s not something that we should be focusing on. We need to build the industrial power to extract what we need from whichever government we see elected.
So what do you see as priorities in the months ahead?
Organizing around COVID safety is important. We need effective measures to recruit health and safety representatives, to put them in touch with each other, and to educate all staff about their rights at work. This is an area where we could be massively growing the union’s membership.
Also, most of our members are either already involved in enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs) or about to go into EBA negotiations. EBA campaigns require smart organizing to make sure that workers understand the relevance of quite complicated and technical negotiations.
For instance, class sizes are a big issue. I’ve just been talking to someone who’s teaching tutorials with a hundred twenty students. It’s a huge issue for teachers and students, and demanding maximum class sizes that are written into EBAs is a great way to make sure we’re addressing issues that matter to them. Ultimately, we should be demanding that EBAs push away from a market-based, consumer-focused model of higher education, and toward decent conditions and a better education for students.
We’ve just seen a impressive union success among Amazon workers in New York. Are there lessons there for NTEU members?
The lesson is that rank-and-file workers know how to get it done. Top-down unionism isn’t as powerful. Unionism is most effective when it is driven by the energy of workers who want a better workplace and who care about each other.
If Amazon workers in Staten Island teach us anything, let it be that the moment to get organized is now. Many university workers feel a kind of desperation — and I understand that. But the flip side of desperation is urgency. If you can speak to union members and give them hope and a project to work on, that means we’re speaking to them at their most receptive, when they’re the most willing to stand for what they believe. That’s the lesson from New York: the time to fight is now.