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Speech: Higher Education funding cuts

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 18 Jun 2013

Adjournment debate, Tuesday 18 June 2013

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (00:01): There are no winners when a government cuts university funding. The chronic underfunding of tertiary education in Australia over recent decades has placed increasing financial pressure on universities to cut costs. The most recent OECD figures show that of 29 advanced economies Australia is ranked 25th for public investment in universities, as a percentage of total GDP expenditure.

Following years of chronic underinvestment by the coalition government this Labor government has made $4 billion in funding cuts to higher education since 2011. In this year's budget, universities were hit with a direct $900 million cut—dubbed an efficiency dividend—as part of the $2.3 billion university cuts that are hurting students and staff. These cuts do hurt students. They damage the quality of our higher education. We have seen a marked rise in the nation's student debt over the past 20 years from a total of less than $5 billion in 1995 to around $30 billion today. In 2012 the average HECS debt of a university graduate was $15,200 and would take eight years to repay. These recent university cuts could see some students debts increase by 50 per cent. Young people should not be burdened with such student debts to earn a degree.

Underfunding has led to increased staff-to-student ratios at Australian universities. Student-to-staff ratios increased from about 13:1 in 1990 to more than 21:7 in 2010, an average 65 per cent increase. This includes research staff, who may teach occasionally or not at all, and is an aggregate of casual and part-time staff counted as full-time staff. So the actual body counts of students to staff are likely to be highly undercounted.

According to one researcher, the ratio of coursework students to staff who teach is more like 34:1, which is an increase of over 150 per cent since 1990. This directly affects the quality of teaching and learning at our universities. Cuts also hurt university staff, who have borne the brunt of cost-cutting measures with reductions in conditions, job security and career-development opportunities. A key part of my role as a Greens senator is in supporting campaigns for progressive change that are taking place on the streets and in the workplace. One such struggle is the current NTEU and CPSU enterprise bargaining campaign at the University of Sydney, which will have far-reaching consequences for the future of higher education across the sector.

In conversations with university staff on the picket lines, long-term unionists have told me that the level of industrial action at the University of Sydney—five strike days over the course of semester 1—is unprecedented. They say they have been forced to take this action in opposition to a similarly unprecedented attack by university management on their wages and conditions, which would negatively impact the quality of education for current and future students.

Recently released survey results indicate that the decision by the overwhelming majority of union members to take ongoing strike action aligns with widespread discontent among staff over the direction of the university. The survey found that staff perceptions of management performance were markedly more negative than at other Group of Eight universities.

It is not hard to understand why staff feel this way when we look at the objective conditions of work at the university and the approach of management to staff at the bargaining table. One of the key demands by the unions has been for management to reduce their reliance on casual work. NTEU members gave evidence about the demoralising treadmill of casual work at a recent parliamentary inquiry into insecure work, initiated by Greens MP Adam Bandt.

The inquiry was told that casuals are in a constant state of anxiety about where their next short-term contract will come from in the face of ongoing and permanent living costs. They highlighted the fact that they receive no leave entitlements and other protections if they get sick, have caring commitments or simply need a holiday and that they are required to take on large amounts of unpaid work.

Across the country, around half of undergraduate teaching is now performed by casuals and the trend towards casualisation has been no different at Sydney university. After the fourth strike day this semester, management were pressured into agreeing to provisions that would have a real impact on reducing the trend towards casualisation. However, I was disappointed to find out that unions had been told that these and other wins were conditional on staff accepting a real pay cut over the course of the agreement.

University staff have been forced onto an effective wage freeze since January 2012, due to management delaying enterprise bargaining negotiations. Their revised offer of below three per cent per year will not keep up with rising housing, childcare and energy costs in Sydney, ranked in one measure as the third most expensive city in the world.

Union rights are particularly significant in the context of the federal Labor government's $2.3 billion budget cuts to higher education, which gained the support of the coalition.

Today, casual staff in the Sydney University Casuals Network staged a 'mark-in' where they marked exam papers on desks placed outside the Vice-Chancellor's office. They held placards with parody job advertisements for casual academics, which read: '$15 an hour for marking, half the superannuation rate of permanent staff, little training for teaching, no job security.' This action highlighted the unrealistic workloads, low wages and precarious nature of casual work.

Sydney university casual academics are paid to mark 4,500 words per hour and more for exams. Every tutor knows that this is unrealistic. When you take into account the time taken to consult with colleagues on what is expected in the assessment, properly evaluate the quality of the work, provide feedback that students deserve and then process the marks, in real terms casual tutors receive around $15 per hour. This is just one of the many ways unrealistic workloads disguise underpayment of casual academics and demonstrate why a decent wage increase is so important in the current industrial dispute at Sydney university.

In bringing along their own tables and chairs, the casuals network also drew attention to the lack of resources and support given to casual academics. For example, casuals at Sydney university are forced to prepare classes, mark assignments and meet students, often in their living rooms, libraries or other public spaces because many of them are not given office space. This reflects a general attitude towards staff by a university management that views its casuals as disposable workers. It is why unions have put job security at the forefront of their enterprise bargaining campaign, and some faculties at Sydney university the proportion of casual academic staff is staggering: architecture has 42 per cent casual teachers; Sydney College of the Arts and music, 34 per cent; dentistry and nursing, 35 per cent; and education 43 per cent casual staff.

Increasing levels of casualisation as an appointment strategy is a growing problem across the university sector. When you look at the number of face-to-face teaching hours performed by casual teachers, it is over 50 per cent. Most of the staff will choose to be in permanent teaching positions.

I was incredibly disappointed in question time earlier today that the Labor government refuses to support university staff's moderate demands for an above-inflation pay rise and better job security. The minister talked up his connections to the university management. It is management that are using Labor's cuts as a vehicle for slashing pay and conditions. Staff and students are also rightly disappointed that a Labor government would at the same time refuse to support the modest demands of workers and cut funding to higher education.

The announcement of cuts to higher education funding in the midst of the industrial dispute at the University of Sydney has crystallised two competing visions of the future of higher education. On one side, the major parties and management teams like those at Sydney University want to place educational opportunities and critical research in the hands of the market; on the other side, we have staff, unions, student activists and the Greens that want our public universities to be places where secure staff and supported students can cooperate through teaching, learning and research to advance ideas to make the world a better place.

I congratulate the NTEU and the CPSU for their work on behalf of their members—work that plays a critical role in building a quality higher education sector.

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