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Issue #1793      September 6, 2017

University funding cuts threaten our future

The Turnbull government’s plan to strip $1.2 billion from tertiary education funding over the next four years has led university authorities to seek drastic changes to staff employment conditions, which would make it much easier for them to sack or exploit staff members.

Many universities want to abolish university disciplinary committees that deal with disputes over redundancy or allegations of staff misconduct or unsatisfactory performance.

The universities argue that such cases can be referred to the Fair Work Commission, but the Commission couldn’t handle every dispute from every tertiary institution in Australia. Many cases also involve ethical issues, which should be dealt with by academic peers, not by a court.

Sarah Roberts, industrial coordinator of the National Tertiary Education Union, commented: “Allegations of serious misconduct, especially in relation to academic matters, should be tested by academics. Academics in the field are best placed to say whether or not it is plagiarism (for example) as opposed to management making a unilateral decision.”

The university authorities deny they intend to abolish the committees as a means of silencing or removing staff.

Deakin University Vice-chancellor Jan Van Hollander said: “The committee process required a significant investment in preparation, which created unnecessary delay and caused anxiety for staff and managers.

“The new streamlined processes allow for a swifter independent review and are a sensible compromise that strikes a balance between timelines and ensuring protection for staff.”

But under a recent Deakin University agreement a single reviewer would replace the disciplinary committees, and senior management could review academic work allocations and redundancy decisions.

Melbourne University’s deputy provost Richard James argued that review and appeals committees should be replaced with a single comprehensive dispute and grievance procedure, He declared “We want to simplify without removing any protections or rigour.”

But abolition of the committees opens up the possibility of university authorities using allegations of misconduct as justification for sacking staff members who criticise university policies or programs.

The Commission recently supported an application by financially-struggling Murdoch University to abolish disciplinary committee hearings. The Commission claimed this was necessary to enable the university to restructure and become “financially sustainable”.

Vice-chancellor Eeva Leinonen denied the university wanted to cut staff salaries, claiming the decision was “fair for both employees and the university”.

But the Commission admitted that the Murdoch decision would facilitate “reshaping [the university’s] workforce, altering staff behaviour, controlling staff costs and removing unnecessary bureaucratic costs.”

The university has only agreed to maintain employee pay for six months, and other universities will likely move to eliminate over-award payments. Murdoch University will spend less time searching for alternative activity for staff it declares redundant. Employees will lose the right to appeal discipline decisions and retain their positions, except in cases of serious misconduct.

Murdoch academics are now denied the right to spend 75 percent of their time on teaching and 25 percent on research, an arrangement that benefits staff and contributes to national development, but which sometimes compels universities to hire extra employees.

False arguments facilitate cuts

The federal government’s cuts to tertiary education funding underlie the decision of universities to terminate agreements. The cuts will hit students as well as staff members.

The government regards universities as businesses, and students as their customers. Universities are expected to make a profit and maximise it. But up-front student fees cannot cover the cost of running a university. Government funding is therefore necessary, but is bitterly resented by conservative governments.

The “solution” has been the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS), under which payment of high student fees may be deferred until after a student graduates and gains employment.

But the government has increased the HECS rates and decreased the debt repayment threshold. Graduating students now face massive debts which threaten their ability to purchase a home or meet other major vital expenses, and which may never be paid off.

The Whitlam government introduced no-fee university education, which operated for several years. However, HECS designer Bruce Chapman argues that the cost of education should be borne by students who benefit directly from it, as opposed to others with lower qualifications.

That approach treats education as a commodity, not a human right. If Chapman’s argument was implemented and carried to its logical conclusion, parents would have to pay for the education of their children beyond the basic school certificate level, because they would benefit from it later, as opposed to those whose education proceeded no further.

Extending the argument, Medicare should also be dropped, because sick people benefit from it, whereas others have to pay the Medicare levy even though they’re healthy.

Chapman also claims that Marx opposed the idea of free tertiary education because he said it benefited the upper classes. But when Marx was writing, university education was almost exclusively the prerogative of the rich – and rich men at that – and there was virtually no possibility of working people ever gaining a university degree.

Marx never approved of this state of affairs, which was later attacked by George Bernard Shaw because it failed to realise the nation’s intellectual potential. As he noted, tertiary education benefits the nation, not just graduates, by contributing to its economic and cultural development.

Seeking to justify its funding cuts, the Turnbull government has welcomed simplistic claims by economists that many universities could improve their finances by increasing their productivity, as measured by their number of publications and student enrolments.

But umbrella group Universities Australia is opposing the cuts, and has pointed out that they would cause severe setbacks for the development of STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and maths) which are crucial for future national development.

If the Senate rejects the cuts, the government will probably introduce cost-cutting measures that don’t require new legislation. However, a double dissolution of parliament may occur if the High Court rules that some government MPs are not entitled to their positions because of their dual nationality.

The government would almost certainly lose a subsequent election. So the careless or duplicitous approach of government MPs regarding their nationality may bring a new lease of life for Australia’s vitally important tertiary education system and a better deal for our students and tertiary education staff members!

Next article – One Nation vendetta against ABC and SBS

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